Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Missoula County is backing federal legislation that would allow dispensaries and other marijuana retailers to utilize the U.S. banking system like any other business.

Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines are co-sponsoring the Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act, which would enable local marijuana businesses to access financial institutions.

Missoula County sent letters of support to both senators this week, urging them to maintain support for the measure.

“This would allow entities engaged in the sale of marijuana to use banking systems in the United States,” said county CAO Chris Lounsbury. “Currently, they're prohibited because it's still a federally prohibited drug.”

Voters in Montana made recreational marijuana legal in 2020, and dispensaries have opened in most major cities in the state as a result. In Missoula County, at least 57 dispensaries were open in late 2021, prompting the city and county to implement new zoning rules around the young industry.

But local zoning did nothing to address the industry's inability to access the U.S. banking system, which is federally regulated.

“Due to conflicting state and federal laws, these enterprises and their patrons are restricted to cash-only transactions,” the county wrote in its letter of support. “This presents both a frustrating experience for customers and a security danger to employees and business owners due to the high concentration of cash on-site.”

Many dispensaries in Missoula require cash-only purchases, and most have an ATM in their business, which enables customers to access money for their purchase – with a fee added to the ATM transaction.

The SAFER Act as proposed would change that by allowing dispensaries and other marijuana businesses to participate in the banking system like any other business. The legislation cleared a key Senate committee earlier this fall in which Daines expressed support, calling it a needed step to address public safety.

Daines is the lead Republican on the bill and is negotiating with Sen. Chuck Schumer to get the bill adopted, his office said on Wednesday.

“The current all-cash model of legal cannabis businesses makes them targets for theft, tax evasion and organized crime,” Daines said. “The key to addressing this risk is by ensuring that all legal businesses have access to the banking system.”

Tester also backs the legislation.

“I know how important it is for small businesses in rural America to have access to banking services,” Tester said. “I've supported this effort since 2019, and I'm proud to support the bipartisan SAFER Banking Act, because it's a commonsense fix that will allow legally-operated Montana small businesses to access the financial services they need to thrive, while also making our communities safer by cutting down on cash-motivated crimes.”

If passed, the act would create protections from federal laws and further support the burgeoning marijuana industry. Consumers would also be able to make a purchase using a credit or debit card, doing away with cash transactions.

Business owners would also gain expanded access to deposit options from banks and credit cards. Missoula County believes that would “bring stability” to the industry at both a state and local level.

“Even in states like Montana, Oregon, California and others where marijuana has been approved for recreational or medical use, those entities can't actually use the U.S. banking system, so they have to find a credit union or bank that doesn't cross state lines and is not subject to federal regulations,” Lounsbury said.