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A customer pays cash for retail marijuana at 3D Cannabis Center, in Denver on Thursday, May 8, 2014. Frustrated by the cash-heavy aspect of its new marijuana industry, Colorado is trying a long-shot bid to create a financial system devoted to the pot business. / Brennan Linsley, AP

DENVER -- A newly approved state plan aimed at helping Colorado's marijuana stores handle the vast sums of greenbacks ringing through their cash registers may be dead on arrival unless Congress steps in.

State lawmakers late Wednesday night approved a law giving marijuana-store owners the right to create cannabis co-operatives, which would operate like banks or credit unions. Gov. John Hickenlooper previously indicated he would sign a slightly different bill, but has repeatedly called on federal lawmakers to change laws on the national level.

Most banks and credit unions have refused to do business with Colorado's rapidly expanding marijuana industry over fears of violating federal money-laundering laws. The end result? Many marijuana stores operate entirely with cash, paying their vast electric bills, taxes and construction loans with stacks of greenbacks, requiring armed guards to protect it.

"Imagine paying your mortgage in cash, and losing your bank account every six months," said Elan Nelson, a spokeswoman for the large Denver-based marijuana store Medicine Man. "It's an awful, awful way to do business."

Nelson said marijuana companies struggle to find lenders willing to make private deals and to handle the sheer physical volume of the cash they're accepting. But despite the bill's passage, the marijuana industry doesn't expect it to ever go into effect. The law opens the co-ops to marijuana and hemp producers.

"Most everyone agrees that banking needs to be fixed at the federal level. However, Congress appears to be unwilling to act, and Coloradans don't have time to wait," said Mike Elliott of the pot lobby's Marijuana Industry Group. "(This law) is likely not a solution to the banking problem but an opportunity to move the conversation forward."

Under the plan, cannabis co-ops could provide banking services like accepting deposits, issuing checks and electronically transferring funds. But they can only do that after getting explicit permission from the Federal Reserve. That's unlikely, said the Colorado Bankers Association. The co-ops would not be FDIC insured like a bank, which CBA officials said means the red light from the feds is "redder than ever."

"If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to admit it and wish the state well," CBA President and CEO Don Childears said. "But I don't think I'm wrong."

Childears said bankers are concerned the state can't properly track or regulate the all-cash marijuana businesses. CBA has been pushing members of Congress to pass legislation prohibiting federal regulators from punishing any bank serving marijuana businesses in states like Colorado and Washington state.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., who introduced that legislation, has been pushing for a hearing on the proposal.

"By the end of the year, more than half the states will have some form of legal marijuana use, and we can't have these businesses dealing in buckets full of cash that pose a real crime threat and harm to people," Perlmutter said during a congressional committee meeting Wednesday.

Testifying in support of the Colorado co-op bill, marijuana store owners said they play a cat-and-mouse game with banks, sometimes opening accounts under benign names in an effort to gain access to services like writing checks or transferring money electronically.

While the cannabis co-op law likely won't directly lead to changes, it's a place to start, Nelson said.

"It will probably go nowhere, but we have to start having the conversation at the federal level," she said.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Marijuana banks face tough going without feds' help

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