Asked about the conflict in federal and state laws on marijuana use, the official said the agency sought to balance competing interests. One of them is the concern about having so much cash on the street without an ability to get those funds into the safety of a bank.
The guidance provided the banks with more than 20 "red flags" that may indicate a violation of federal law. Among them: if a business receives substantially more revenue than its local competitors, deposits more cash than is in line with the amount of marijuana-related revenue it is reporting for federal and state tax purposes, or experiences a surge in activity by third parties offering goods or services such as equipment suppliers or shipping services.
If a marijuana-related business is seen engaging in international or interstate activity, such as the receipt of cash deposits from locations outside the state, that's a red flag, too.
It has been difficult for legal marijuana sellers to operate without banks in the mix.
"It's not just banks that are wary about handling our money, it's everybody — security businesses, lawyers, you name it, no one wants to take the risk of taking our money," said Caitlin McGuire, owner of Breckenridge Cannabis Club in Breckenridge, Colo.
McGuire's shop had an account with a local credit union for years, but the credit union cut them off last year.
"They basically told us they wanted to keep our accounts, but it was too big of a risk. They were questioned by their auditors, 'Why do you have this marijuana account?' It just ended up being too much for them."
The pot shop now pays its bills with money orders and cash. It's not easy, McGuire said.
"It's made it very difficult to pay our bills, to pay our employees, to pay our taxes, to do anything."
Associated Press writers Martin Crutsinger and Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.