Banks Say No to Marijuana Money, Legal or Not

SEATTLE — In his second-floor office above a hair salon in north Seattle, Ryan Kunkel is seated on a couch placing $1,000 bricks of cash — dozens of them — in a rumpled brown paper bag. When he finishes, he stashes the money in the trunk of his BMW and sets off on an adrenalized drive downtown, darting through traffic and nervously checking to see if anyone is following him.

“Carrying such large amounts of cash is a terrible risk that freaks me out a bit because there is the fear in my mind that the next car pulling up beside me could be the crew that hijacks us,” he said. “So, we have to play this never-ending shell game of different cars, different routes, different dates and different times.”

Legal marijuana merchants like Mr. Kunkel — mainly medical marijuana outlets but also, starting this year, shops that sell recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington — are grappling with a pressing predicament: Their businesses are conducted almost entirely in cash because it is exceedingly difficult for them to open and maintain bank accounts, and thus accept credit cards.

As a result, banks, including state-chartered ones, are reluctant to provide traditional services to marijuana businesses. They fear that federal regulators and law enforcement authorities might punish them, with measures like large fines, for violating prohibitions on money-laundering, among other federal laws and regulations.

The limitations have created unique burdens for legal marijuana business owners. They pay employees with envelopes of cash. They haul Chipotle and Nordstrom bags containing thousands of dollars in $10 and $20 bills to supermarkets to buy money orders. When they are able to open bank accounts — often under false pretenses — many have taken to storing money in Tupperware containers filled with air fresheners to mask the smell of marijuana.

But the financial institutions eventually shut down many of these accounts after managers conclude the businesses are too much of a risk. It is not unusual for a legitimate marijuana business to go through a half-dozen bank accounts in a few years. While they are active, however, these accounts may have informal restrictions placed on them — some self-imposed — so they do not draw the scrutiny of bankers who may file suspicious-activity reports or would be required to report deposits over $10,000 in cash. The account holders may make only small deposits, and only at night and at certain branches. Mr. Kunkel of Seattle has such an account.

Those marijuana operations that do have bank accounts or use the personal ones of their owners can use a cashless A.T.M. service in which a debit card is swiped at a dispensary and the money is transferred into the recipient’s account.

Richard Riese, senior vice president for regulatory compliance at the American Bankers Association, said banks wanted clear and comprehensive guidelines on how to do business with the legal marijuana industry.

Mr. Riese said, for instance, that banks would want to know that they were not “aiding and abetting” a criminal enterprise if they provided services to marijuana businesses. “Banks will need a lot of detail from regulators to get the satisfaction and comfort they are looking for,” he said.