Industrial Hemp and the Banks: Slow Going

We have spilled a lot of ink on this blog related to the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp at the federal level. It’s huge news. And there are so many ramifications, from food law to trademarks to the environment for financial services. This blog post is going to cover financial institutions and hemp at about 10,000 feet. Since late December, we’ve had many clients come to us with frustrations about the ongoing lack of access post-Farm Bill, and questions about how things will play out in 2019.

To frame this issue, it’s important to summarize what the Farm Bill actually is and does. In a recent post, we explained that “the 2018 Farm Bill modified the Controlled Substances Act (the ‘CSA’) to exempt hemp from the definition of marijuana. Not only is hemp now clearly excluded from this definition and thus not a scheduled drug, but states and tribes also cannot prohibit the distribution of hemp.” Seems easy, right?

industrial hemp bank credit unionIf only. Going forward, hemp will be subject to stiff regulation at the state and federal levels. For example, although growing hemp no longer violates the CSA, the Farm Bill prohibits hemp production in states and tribal jurisdictions that lack an industrial hemp “plan.” Those plans will be nuanced, and what any state’s plan will look like next year is unknown. That fact alone may be the biggest reason that most financial institutions are still on the sidelines.

Financial institutions are also conservative by nature. We represent a handful of banks (and a larger handful of credit unions), and we give those outfits advice on banking hemp and marijuana. A few of these clients are relatively nimble and bold, but at the end of the day they are still banks. They have directors who worry about individual liability, lawyers and officers who worry about byzantine state and federal laws and policy, and shareholders and members who may see outsized risk and steep learning curves. When banks move into these areas, they tend to offer limited services, which are seldom more than basic merchant accounts.

Financial institutions also understand that when a new piece of federal regulation is enacted, it takes some time for rules to be written in support of the new law (both federally and by states), for programs to be staffed and built, for guidance to issue, etc. Finally, there is often a wave or two of litigation to interpret the administrative environment. All of that happens over the course of years and not months, and all of that will happen with hemp and the Farm Bill. Like the rest of us, financial institutions cannot see around corners and will be watching closely.

So what does all of this mean? Ultimately there will be banking, but banks and credit unions will not come in all at once. When they do come in, the early actors will probably provide services for hemp clients that looks similar to what is out there today in states like Washington and Oregon for hemp and marijuana businesses. This means limited access to institutional lending, ongoing compliance reporting and audits, and short leashes overall. Everything that happens will be fluid and consistent with best practices for high-risk industries.

Ending prohibition is a lot of fun, but then you get to wake up and go to work. We are optimistic that the hemp industry will have ample banking options. It will take some time, though. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor this issue and other hemp-related matters closely. Stay tuned.

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Author: Vince Sliwoski
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