But in response, the American Bankers Association said "guidance or regulation doesn't alter the underlying challenge for banks. As it stands, possession or distribution of marijuana violates federal law, and banks that provide support for those activities face the risk of prosecution and assorted sanctions."
The group says banks will only be comfortable serving marijuana businesses if federal prohibitions on the drug are changed in law.
Denny Eliason, a lobbyist for the Washington Bankers Association, said it will take some time before banks decide whether to take advantage of the guidance. He called it a good first step, but said it sets forth a complicated process for the banks to follow — for example, by filing suspicious activity reports designated "marijuana limited" in the case of business that seem to be complying with the rules, and "marijuana priority" for those acting questionably.
"They'll have to have a real awareness of the activities of their customers," he said.
State banking regulators in Colorado and Washington appear to believe that mainly small and medium-sized banks will be interested in handling financial transactions with legal marijuana stores, not the big ones, a FinCEN official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity to talk about internal deliberations.
"This is a decision that each financial institution needs to make on its own," the official said. "We feel quite comfortable that we have acted within the scope of our authority" and therefore don't expect legal challenges to the new procedures.
FinCEN writes the rules that U.S. financial institutions must follow to help protect the system from money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The office said it expects financial institutions to perform thorough customer due diligence on marijuana businesses and file reports that will be valuable to law enforcement.
Under the guidance, banks must review state license applications for marijuana customers, request information about the business, develop an understanding of the types of products to be sold and monitor publicly available sources for any negative information about the business.