Despite periodic bouts of saber-rattling and antagonism from the Department of Justice, the legal cannabis industry in the U.S. seems to be growing less concerned about the possibility of a federal crackdown. And the sectors of the economy that do business with cannabis companies seem less wary, too. More banks, for example, are actively operating accounts for marijuana businesses. But banking problems associated with the federal prohibition on marijuana are still beleaguering many who work in or with the cannabis industry.
Wells Fargo Shut Down a Pro-Cannabis Politician’s Account
Typically, we hear about the cannabis industry’s “cash problem” in the context of federally-backed banks’ unwillingness to offer financial services to weed businesses. While state-legal, such companies are breaking federal drug law. And banks say that doing business with those companies puts firms in legal jeopardy with government regulators and law enforcement.
But now there’s a new twist on a familiar tale. This time, a bank is refusing to do business not with a cannabis company, but with a pro-cannabis politician.
Earlier this month, Wells Fargo closed the account of Nikki Fried, a candidate for Florida’s agriculture commissioner. Wells Fargo said they decided to terminate their relationship with Fried for two reasons. One, because she accepted campaign contributions—funds she deposited with Wells Fargo—from medical cannabis lobbyists. And two, because of her own political platform advocates for expanding access to medical marijuana in Florida.
Are Big Banks Suppressing Free Speech?
Today, Fried’s campaign published the emails between Fried and Wells Fargo. In one email, Vice President and Senior Relationship Manager Antoinette Infante writes, “it was uncovered some information regarding the customers political platform and that they are advocating for expanded patient access to medical marijuana.”
For Wells Fargo, that advocacy and the source of contributions to Fried’s campaign were enough to prompt a review of Fried’s account for “banking risks.” And on August 3, Wells Fargo sent a letter to Fried’s campaign stating that it was closing the account.
It’s unclear what the precise risk Fried’s campaign posed to Wells Fargo was. But the ‘riskiness’ argument has also been used by other institutions to close accounts with cannabis advocacy groups. Last year, to take just one example, PNC Bank closed its 22-year-old account with the Marijuana Policy Project. PNC said fear over a federal crackdown on state-legal cannabis businesses prompted their decision.
But Wells Fargo’s decision is the first instance of a bank denying services to a political candidate based on their political views and the source of their donations. For Fried, Wells Fargo’s actions are tantamount to violating her free speech. During a Friday press conference, Fried said the bank’s action went “against the fundamental rights to speech of a candidate for public office”. Fried hopes that going public with her story will shed light on the disconnect between the public and the nation’s laws and institutions.
In 2016, Florida legalized cannabis for medical use. But the program has had a difficult start, including court battles which found some of the program’s restrictions, including a ban on smokable forms of cannabis, unconstitutional.