Jared Polis to Timothy Geithner: Don't let banks discriminate against medical marijuana industry

Representative Jared Polis has spent a lot of his legislative capital of late defending the medical marijuana industry in Colorado from possible interference by the federal government.

In February, for example, he sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing concern about saber-rattling statements made by DEA special agent Jeffrey Sweetin after the arrest of Highlands Ranch medical marijuana grower Chris Bartkowicz. And earlier this month, he quizzed Holder on similar subjects as part of the House judiciary committee.

The latest? Polis is the lead author of a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asking him to reassure banks that the feds have no interest in targeting medical marijuana operations following the law. "We're asking for clarification that they won't use asset forfeiture laws to go after legal state businesses," he says.

Polis is no Jared-come-lately on the medical marijuana issue. He's among the most energetic backers of HR 2835, a June 2009 proposal -- to read it, click here -- that would prevent DEA personnel from arresting or charging doctors, patients, growers and/or dispensary owners who comply with state law. The measure would also downgrade marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act.

In Polis's view, such moves are important due to the conflict between Colorado and U.S. law when it comes to marijuana.

"Colorado is among a number of states that have now regulated the sale of medical marijuana," he says. "Yet we find that federal statutes are interfering with these pieces of state legislation. The Colorado legislature has taken this issue seriously, and the voters have clearly spoken. So we need to make sure federal law doesn't lead to unintended consequences for businesses engaged in legal business in the state of Colorado."

Likewise, he believes the rescheduling of marijuana "would go a long way" toward reducing the feds' incentive to focus on marijuana. "It would allow states broad discretion in how they deal with regulation and sale in some states -- and in other jurisdictions, they would regulate sale for pharmaceutical use," he says. "It would really prevent the federal government from superseding local regulation."

Trouble is, there's not enough political momentum behind HR 2835 to give it a real shot at passage anytime soon -- although Polis hasn't lost hope.

"The more states that regulate the sale of marijuana, the more impetus there will be for action in Washington," he allows. "It's not on the radar of members of Congress if they come from a state that doesn't have it. But as the number of states grows, there will be more of a cry in Washington. So we'll continue to push this legislation, but we're also seeking administrative relief for these grievances, and we're having some success with that."

Indeed, Polis was generally pleased with Holder's response to his medical-marijuana questions before the judiciary committee a couple of weeks back -- although he concedes that "the proof will be in the pudding. They're saying the right things in Washington, but the challenge is to operationalize it in the field, so there are no raids against legal state businesses, and we stop this rhetoric about drug wars. This is a public health issue -- a serious public-health issue. But reducing the abuse of drugs is very different from the treatment of medical marijuana under state law."

And then there's Polis's recent letter to Geithner, which was signed by fourteen other members of Congress, including Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, the original sponsor of HR 2835, and erstwhile Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul. He frames the issue like so:

"We've heard concerns from many dispensaries that they have difficulty accessing banking services, because the banks are worried about federal action against them -- so we're trying to get some clarity."

Here's the Polis letter:

The Honorable Timothy Geithner Secretary Department of the Treasury 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20220

Dear Secretary Geithner:

As you know, the voters of Colorado approved a law providing for the use of medical marijuana for qualifying patients with a doctor's recommendation in 2000. Since that time, the provision of this medicine to patients has become more streamlined, with collective non-profit organizations providing marijuana to patients at retail locations. The other 13 states that have medical marijuana laws have similarly made progress to ensure the safe delivery of medical marijuana to qualified patients. Currently many more states are in the process of developing their strategy to address this issue in a manner that is both compassionate and consistent with our shared goal of public safety.

Your counterparts at the Department of Justice are to be commended for issuing formal written guidelines on October 19, 2009, making clear that federal resources should not be used against people in compliance with state law in states that have legalized marijuana for medical use. Following that announcement, on November 16, 2009, Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers' office issued a formal opinion stating that "Medical marijuana is tangible personal property and is subject to the state sales tax..." and that "[t]he obligation to collect and remit sales tax due is borne by the vendor [emphasis added.]"

In attempts to comply with the policy articulated by Attorney General Suthers, many medical marijuana dispensaries have opened or maintained accounts with major national banking institutions or local banks. However, dispensary operators are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain accounts with financial institutions, due to what a spokesman for Chase bank called, "financial operational and compliance risk."

Thus, it seems clear that legitimate state-legal businesses are being denied access to banking services, which does not serve the public interest. Among other concerns, the effects of this denial of service include: (1) an increased risk to public safety with potential theft or robbery that any cash-only or cash-reliant business faces; (2) a decreased likelihood that medical marijuana vendors will have the ability to accurately account for tax liability; and (3) an affront to fundamental fairness, since forcing businesses to operate with cash exposes the owners to greater legal risk under the Bank Secrecy Act.

As individual states move forward with establishing a regulatory framework for how to address the distribution of medical marijuana, it is essential that providers and patients alike are not subjected to undue danger from criminal activity by forcing providers to be "cash-only." To the criminal element these places become soft targets. In a time when local governments are already financially strained, ensuring providers can access banking services has the double benefit of increasing public safety and giving local governments and providers alike the ability to ensure compliance with tax remittance.

Accordingly, we respectfully request that your office issue formal written guidance for financial institutions assuring that Department priorities do not include targeting or pursuing institutions whose account holders are involved in a business ostensibly operating in compliance with a state medical marijuana law. Not only does this remedy a fundamental inequity, it also seems a wise use of the Department's limited resources.

We look forward to hearing from you. Thank you very much for your attention to this matter.


Jared Polis Member of Congress

Barney Frank Member of Congress

Dr. Ron Paul Member of Congress

Jose Serrano Member of Congress

Sam Farr Member of Congress

Zoe Lofgren Member of Congress

Steven Cohen Member of Congress

Lois Capps Member of Congress

Raúl Grijalva Member of Congress

Linda Sanchez Member of Congress

Donald M. Payne Member of Congress

Tammy Baldwin Member of Congress

Pete Stark Member of Congress

Dana Rohrabacher Member of Congress

Brad Sherman Member of Congress

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts