Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) To purchase $20 in recreational marijuana at a Missoula dispensary, you better carry cash. The ATM at most local shops will charge an extra 15% and, as it stands, cash is the only option for those looking to buy.

But a bill introduced by Sens. Steve Daines, R-Montana and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, would change that, allowing dispensaries to conduct modern commerce with actual banks – a move that would render cash nearly as obsolete as it is anywhere else.

“It would open up a lot of opportunities for the industry in general, but it would be more convenient for the employees as well,” said Angel, who manages Lionheart Cannabis in Missoula. “I think there’s room to grow, especially if we can charge using credit cards.”

Most states have legalized recreational marijuana including the entire American West outside Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Montana voters made it legal in 2020 and the industry has grown in that short time to tens of millions of dollars.

But at the federal level, marijuana is still a Schedule I drug. Banks and credit unions being federally regulated are prohibited from doing business with dispensaries outside of a cash deposit.

Daines said the SAFER Banking Act would help address that.

“While I don’t believe in the federal legalization of marijuana, the people of Montana spoke and now we must ensure legal businesses can safely operate,” Daines told the Missoula Current. “It’s a win-win for our Montana communities.”

The SAFER Banking Act passed the Senate Banking Committee it September on a 14-9 vote. If adopted, it would represent a milestone in legislation offering protection to financial institutions that serve state-sanction pot businesses.

Daines, who is the lead Senate Republican on the bill, is negotiating with Sen. Chuck Schumer “to strengthen this bill for Montana,” his office said.

“On one hand, it will help keep our Montana communities safe, reducing the risk of crime and providing much-needed clarity for law enforcement officers,” Daines said. “It will also help protect legal business’ access to financial institutions.”

Big numbers and lots of cash

According to the Montana Department of Revenue, marijuana sales in Montana from January 2022 to August 2023 reached more than $516 million and generated roughly $81 million in taxes.

August alone saw sales reach nearly $24 million, which broke the previous record set in July of $23.5 million. In each of the last six months, sales have topped $20 million or more for the first time.

That’s a lot of cash flowing around – passed by customers to cannabis clerks and clerks to their bank tellers.

“Whether it’s a legal cannabis business, a legal gun manufacturer or a legal energy company, no Montana business should be shut out of banks or credit unions because of ideological differences,” Daines said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to strengthen this bill for the good of our communities and hope to see it pass the Senate soon.”

Monthly marijuana sales in Montana. (Montana Department of Commerce)

Monthly marijuana sales in Montana. (Montana Department of Commerce)
With sales climbing, marijuana sales by county is also growing. Missoula County has adopted a 3% local option tax on recreational sales and in August, the county saw $2.8 million in recreational pot sales, placing it just behind Yellowstone and Gallatin counties in monthly sales and nearly even with Flathead County.

Handling those transactions with plastic cards as opposed to paper bills would be a game change for most dispensaries, Angel said.

“It would defiantly open businesses up for a lot more,” she said. “A lot of our customers don’t carry cash around. They’re definitely using the ATM a lot. Some banks charge another fee on top of the fee that ATM’s charge.”

For employees of Montana dispensaries, Angel said it would also make getting paid easier.

“You have to go to the bank to deposit your money. I was used to direct deposit. It would be nice not having to go to the bank every time you get paid,” she said.

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Gallery Credit: Ashley Warren

The Missoula Current is a Montana owned and operated news organization founded in 2015 to help fill the void in local journalism, and we've been free to read ever since. If you would like to read the original article, click here.

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