The fourth largest bank in the U.S. is taking a stand against cannabis. At least, that’s the message Wells Fargo is sending after shutting down Nikki Fried’s bank account, the Democratic candidate for Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a big supporter of medical cannabis. The reason for the termination, as Forbes’ Tom Angell reported, is because Fried was accepting cannabis campaign contributions.
The move sets a dangerous precedent, advocates say, as emails show that it was prompted by her vocal support for expanding the state’s medical cannabis program.
“As part of the onboarding of the client it was uncovered some information regarding the customers [sic] political platform and that they are advocating for expanding patient access to medical marijuana,” an email obtained by Forbes from Antoinette Infante, a Wells Fargo VP, reads. The email then goes on to ask if Fried’s campaign has received or plans to receive contributions from Florida’s cannabis industry.
Fried replied that yes, of course she would be receiving cannabis campaign contributions, as her campaign’s main plank was expanding the state’s program. She’d previously served as executive director of Igniting Florida, a cannabis-focused lobbying firm. “During the 2016 Legislative Session, Ms. Fried played an integral role in the passage of HB 307, relating to the usage of medical marijuana for those who are terminally ill,”
It was not exactly a secret that she’s a medical cannabis candidate. But it is, apparently, a problem to receive cannabis campaign contributions.
“It is Wells Fargo’s policy not to knowingly bank or provide services to marijuana businesses or for activities related to those businesses, based on federal laws under which the sale and use of marijuana are illegal even if state laws differ,” Michael H. Gray, a spokesperson for Wells Fargo, told Forbes. “We continually review our banking relationships to ensure we adhere to strict regulatory and risk guidelines.”
Based on this, Wells Fargo’s second letter to Fried responded to her disclosure of cannabis campaign contributions and informed her that her account would be terminated in 30 days.
On August 22, two days after Tom Angell’s report, Wells Fargo released a statement saying that it is “completely false” that the company closed Fried’s account due to her political views regarding medical marijuana.
While the Cole Memo—the founding document of legal cannabis—was recently rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a separate 2014 memo giving banks guidance on how to safely work with the legal cannabis industry remains, but hasn’t done much to reassure financial institutions. The flap over Fried’s account highlights the ongoing fissure between the worlds of cannabis and finance. And Wells Fargo’s decision to drop Fried based on cannabis campaign contributions represents an exceptionally broad interpretation of what constitutes a cannabis business.
Gray told Angell that “the policy applies to everyone,” theoretically meaning any current sitting member of Congress who has accepted cannabis campaign contributions. That is, to put it lightly, a whole lot of Congresspeople.
“It is absurd enough that state-regulated businesses are being denied standard banking services, but it is absolutely ludicrous that political candidates and nonprofit advocacy organizations are also being affected,” said Mason Tvert, of the Marijuana Policy Project, calling for Congressional action on the banking issue. “There is no rational reason for Congress to go another session without fixing this growing problem, which has serious societal implications.”
Fried held a press conference at the Florida Capitol, where she described the bank’s “transgression” as an “arbitrary, unprecedented action against the fundamental rights to the speech of a candidate for public office.”
The good news, at least, is that many banks do work with the industry. While institutions that give accounts to businesses directly handling the plant are generally limited to small, single-state banks and credit unions, several major banking institutions told The New York Times that they had no problem providing services to a candidate who accepts cannabis campaign contributions.
However, let’s not forget the real consequence the lack of access to banking has on the cannabis industry. Cash attracts robbers, and the industry is currently beset by them. Call me crazy, but it might be wise to pass some banking reform before another security guard loses their life.