Companies that sell cannabis products—even those consisting of CBD derived from hemp, which was legalized in the U.S. through the Farm Bill late last year—are continuing to have trouble accessing basic financial services that are available to businesses in other sectors.
That includes being able to maintain bank accounts and process their customers' credit cards.
The latter problem could be solved under a new pilot program that has quietly been launched by the payment processing service Square.
“Square is currently conducting an invite-only beta for some CBD products,” a spokesperson for the company said in an email.
When asked about the reasons for the launching the new program, which comes after years of refusing to work with CBD companies, the spokesperson said that the company closely watches evolving public policies and strives to create new opportunities for clients.
In any case, Square's beta effort comes just at the right time for businesses in the growing CBD space. This month, US Bank subsidiary Elavon, which has until recently handled payment processing for companies selling products with the non-intoxicating cannabis compound, is moving to shutter those accounts.
Last week, Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) pressed federal financial regulatorsabout the issue during a hearing.
“I’ve had constituent businesses tell me that their access to financial products, specifically card services, have actually deteriorated since we descheduled industrial hemp in the Farm Bill,” he said. “This obviously conflicts with congressional intent.”
In April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)—who together championed hemp's legalization through the Farm Bill, sent a series of letters to various federal agencies pushing for new guidance about financial services access for hemp businesses.
“While some financial institutions have agreed to offer financial products to the growing hemp industry, many of them have not due to confusion over the legal status of hemp," the bipartisan duo wrote. "However, as hemp is no longer a controlled substance, financial institutions should feel secure in engaging with this industry.”
Square's entry into the CBD space comes as federal legislation to allow broader access to financial services for marijuana businesses is gaining momentum in Congress.
In March, the House Financial Services Committee voted 45 to 15 to approve a bill to shield banks from being punished by federal regulators for working with state-legal marijuana businesses. That legislation now has 184 cosponsors—significantly more than a third of the chamber's membership, and a floor vote is expected within the next several weeks.
A companion Senate bill has 29 lawmakers signed on, but Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) has so far refused to commit to even holding a hearing on the proposal.
But outside groups that do not traditionally support marijuana law reform are exerting pressure on Congress to act.
On Monday, bankers associations from all 50 states sent a joint letter urging Crapo to move the cannabis financial services legislation forward.
Earlier this month, members of the National Association of Attorneys General, which represents the top law enforcement officials in each state, sent a similar letter endorsing the marijuana banking bill.
And last week, The National Association of State Treasurers adopted a resolution supporting a legislative fix, writing that "cash-based systems are inefficient, expensive, and opaque, making illicit activity more difficult to track and posing a significant risk to public safety by increasing the likelihood of violent crime."
While this story was being reported on Tuesday, the website New Consumer published an early report about Square's move, citing an unnamed industry source.
Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, praised the Square for taking the step.
"Forward-thinking companies are stepping in to fill the gap created by outdated federal banking policies, and helping address the problems caused by a lack of financial services in the cannabis industry," he said. "Lawmakers should take heed and open this space to all financial institutions."