Recreational-marijuana businesses might not be as unbanked as they claim, with dozens of stores offering patrons payment alternatives to cash — each requiring a bank account.
Whether by credit card or ATM, customers say they were pleasantly surprised to learn that the cash in their pockets wasn't necessary to buy recreational cannabis.
“It was at the counter, like most non-marijuana retail stores,” said Rachelle Yeung, who works at the Marijuana Policy Project but didn't know that some stores would accept her plastic.
“I did not know ahead of time but was pleasantly surprised,” she said of using her Visa card at a Lakewood store.
Visa and MasterCard have said their policy is to ensure that no illegal transactions enter their systems.
But that position has softened lately, with Visa on Monday saying it's putting the onus on merchant banks to decide the definition of illegal.
“In offering our payment service, Visa adheres to the rule of law and seeks to prevent our network from being used for unlawful purposes,” the company said in a statement to The Denver Post.
“In this instance, the federal government considers the sale of marijuana illegal but has announced that it will not challenge state laws that legalize and regulate marijuana sales,” the statement read. “Given the federal government's position and recognizing this is an evolving legal matter with different standards applicable in different states, our local merchant acquirers (banks) are best suited to make any determination about potential illegality.”
That appears to be a softer position than what occurred about a year ago, when Electronic Merchant Systems — the main company that handles payment processing for the medical-marijuana industry — suspended the approval of Visa and MasterCard, apparently by direction of those brands, though neither side would confirm.
Then the brands backed away again last year after federal raids in California and Colorado on suspect medical-marijuana businesses, disallowing the cards for any purchases since September.
With little firm guidance from federal regulators, bankers privately have said they would like to offer service to legal marijuana-based businesses but won't until the government removes the onus.
Businesses have clamored that they can't get banking services — yet dozens have teller and credit-card machines operating in their stores, each of which requires a bank account.
“A bank account is required but doesn't have to be a business account,” said Lance Ott, owner of Guardian Data Systems in California, which provides payment processing for marijuana merchants.
And the ATM network doesn't use the same processing systems as Visa or MasterCard but still requires a bank account to credit the transaction.
Darin Smith, co-owner of the Denver Kush Club, estimates about 40 percent to 45 percent of his store's retail business since it began New Year's Day has been with credit and debit cards. Several other stores say they're offering plastic as an alternative to cash — but won't offer the name of the bank they work with.
“It's the option we're able to offer, and it provides a much more transparent transaction. As a business, we really want that,” Smith said, conceding that a bank account is indeed necessary.
One customer who would be identified only as Kevin from Littleton said his credit-card purchase at the Kush Club is displayed as “DKC LLC” on his electronic statement.
“I showed up with some cash on hand because I had read prior that these places would be cash only,” Kevin said. “Once I found out they were taking cards, I decided to buy more than the $25 in cash I had with me.”
Ott said the ability to offer credit-card services is a plus for an industry simply trying to do business. But it still remains a risk.
“With the credit cards, it's a huge chance right now,” Ott said, noting how transaction codes don't exist for “dispensary,” so businesses shy toward other descriptions such as “flower shop,” “dentist office” and even “health club.”
Smith said his banking relationship — he wouldn't identify the bank — is a strong one that has lasted more than a dozen years.
“We simply want to be treated as any other business, and we're acting as such,” he said.