Because marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin, LSD and Ecstasy under the Controlled Substances Act, federal law prohibits banks from conducting business with marijuana sellers.
But the Obama administration, in separate advisories from the Treasury Department and the Justice Department Feb. 14, attempted to ease concerns about prosecution in states where the drug can be sold legally.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing the sale of medical marijuana, and Washington and Colorado also have legalized its recreational use. More states are considering loosening their laws.
Barrett Duke, a Southern Baptist ethicist, warned that banks should "steer clear of marijuana businesses for the sake of their communities as well as their livelihood."
"Banks are crucial institutions in society. Through them, communities are able to obtain the funding they need to improve the lives of their residents. For banks to provide their services to the purveyors of marijuana runs contrary to this important function," Duke, vice president for public policy at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press.
As a destructive drug, marijuana interferes with the spiritual, personal and professional wellbeing of those who use it and impacts their loved ones, Duke said.
"Banks would be good community partners if they refused to provide their services to those whose products hurt the communities they seek to help," he said.
The new guidelines follow comments by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month, saying a public safety problem is created by forcing marijuana businesses to use cash only.
"Huge amounts of cash, substantial amounts of cash, just kind of lying around with no place for it to be appropriately deposited is something that would worry me from just a law enforcement perspective," Holder said at the University of Virginia.
Under the guidelines, all transactions with marijuana dealers should be flagged "suspicious," and banks will be required to report them. If banks believe the transactions are legal, they are to file them as "marijuana limited" transactions, and if they are suspected to be illegal, they are to give the "marijuana priority" label.
Following the guidelines is supposed to protect banks from prosecution under federal drug and money laundering statutes.
Bankers associations said the guidelines don't go far enough because enforcement can change from administration to administration and only Congress can change federal law on marijuana.
Duke said banks are justified in their concerns about providing services to businesses that sell an illegal narcotic.
"The decision by the administration to allow them to provide these services should do little to comfort them," Duke said. "Making the banks responsible for determining the reputable nature of these businesses creates a significant legal liability for them. At any moment, their decision could be questioned and the regulators would swoop in.
"Our country needs a more effective anti-drug policy, not surrender. I hope our churches will encourage the banks in their communities to uphold community values rather than chasing profits at the expense of their communities," Duke said. "Our communities need our churches to stand tall for biblical values and virtue. May their communities find them to be the strong supports they need to withstand the moral erosion they are facing."
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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