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How will marijuana businesses handle their cash? Outside companies might help

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 30, 2016

Sara Williams just isn't that comfortable with handling $10 million in cash.

Williams is the CEO of Midnight Greenery, a retail store she and co-owner Tina Smith plan to open in Anchorage this year to sell cannabis flowers, concentrates, oils, edibles and other products.

But like most who are eager to get into Alaska's marijuana industry, Williams is worried about what to do with all the incoming cash that she can't keep in a bank -- especially if business goes well.

Most banks want nothing to do with marijuana businesses because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. That means businesses like Midnight Greenery will have to deal almost entirely with cash.

"You can have a safe for daily purposes," Williams said, "but my business plan is saying I could be pushing $10 million annually, in cash. Millions of dollars needs an off-site storage backup plan, for sure."

Williams said she asked Wells Fargo, Northrim Bank and Matanuska Valley Federal Credit Union about opening an account and was denied by all three.

As a result, Midnight Greenery is planning to use a vault at an Anchorage security company to keep its cash safe.

But Williams and other entrepreneurs might have other options soon: Outside companies which could help ease cannabis-cash anxiety are now eyeing Alaska as one of their next stops.

[Here's what Alaska's marijuana bars may look like]

A California company called PayQwick is looking at making a move north.

"We're very interested in Alaska and want to be there," said Ken Berke, PayQwick CEO. It's simply a matter of when.

PayQwick, which Berke likens to PayPal for pot, allows customers and businesses in the marijuana industry to use an app or PayQwick cards, which are linked to other bank accounts, to pay for marijuana products, getting around the problem of not being able to use an actual debit or credit card in a store. In addition to customers, retailers and processors can use the system to make payments to each other as well.

The company's system relies on seed-to-sale tracking systems for payments to work. Alaska recently chose Franwell, a tracking company that Oregon and Colorado also use, for that service. Berke said he wants to wait until that system takes off in Alaska to do business here.

PayQwick debuted in Washington state last year, where Berke said it's already hit $8 million in transactions. The company is also preparing to set up shop in Oregon and Colorado.

Arizona-based Hypur is another company that marijuana businesses might look to for some relief. Hypur develops software for financial institutions and helps cash-intensive industries -- including cannabis -- conduct cashless transactions.

[Highly Informed: Answers to your questions about marijuana in Alaska]

Though Hypur marketing director Jessica Lee wouldn't mention much about the company's plans in specific states, she said "Alaska is one that's … been on our radar, and there's conversations going on in Alaska."

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network spelled out new guidelines for prosecutors, and for banks that want to provide services for marijuana businesses. The guidelines explained law enforcement would focus on high-priority cases -- like marijuana ending up in the hands of minors, or cannabis revenue going to criminal organizations -- and said banks would have to monitor any marijuana clients' accounts very closely.

But the agencies also reiterated that taking cannabis money was still federally illegal and financial institutions could still be prosecuted -- not exactly comforting news for banks.

Some financial institutions in Washington state actually have opened up to marijuana, said Rick Riccobono, director of banks at Washington's Department of Financial Institutions. Those include Salal Credit Union, Numerica Credit Union and O Bee Credit Union, he said.

Salal has been banking the marijuana industry for about two years. Carmella Houston, vice president of business services there, said it was a challenge to work with cannabis businesses -- the credit union is state-chartered but still federally insured -- but it's "definitely been profitable." Salal has fielded about 2,000 inquiries and opened about 200 accounts.

"It's been crazy," she said. "The demand has been more than what we can do."

In Alaska, though, it appears that no one is warming to the idea.

"The DOJ came out and said, 'If you follow these things, maybe it'll be OK,' but it's just so unclear right now," said Keith Fernandez, vice president of corporate communications and development at Denali Federal Credit Union. Denali doesn't do business with marijuana companies. "I think all financial institutions are hoping at the federal level someone will step in and say, 'OK, it either is allowed or it isn't.' But right now it is such a gray area."

Others are more tight-lipped.

"Our board has decided not to serve those accounts," said Chrissy Bell, senior vice president of communications and culture at Anchorage-based Credit Union 1. "I think there's not much more we have to say."

Steve Lundgren is president and CEO of Denali State Bank and the president of the Alaska Bankers Association. He said despite those federal guidelines, the association has still decided not to support banking marijuana.

"Even though we could bank the business, it would require so much federal oversight on our part that most of the banks here in the state have decided not to do that," Lundgren said. "We're not advocating for anything, but it would help us if federal law was aligned with state law."

The state's banking agency is also watching how institutions will handle an influx of cash.

"We've been trying to figure out how best we can help," said Kevin Anselm, director of the state's Division of Banking and Securities. She said she's watched PayQwick from afar and that there's a big need in Alaska for companies that will help with the banking conundrum, especially because having all-cash businesses could present a public safety issue.

"The banks and institutions are very nervous about taking in marijuana deposits or dealing with clients, even existing clients, that might be doing any sort of marijuana business," she said. "We really need a federal law change."

[Houston, alone in Mat-Su, considers new marijuana regulations]

And until that happens, or a new company crops up, Alaska's pot businesses are left to fend for themselves. Some are turning to private security firms, such as Valkyrie Security and Asset Protection, to protect their money and marijuana.

That's the company Williams said was the answer to Midnight Greenery's banking questions, and she might even store some cannabis with the firm in addition to cash.

Sutton-based Valkyrie, which was founded in 2015 specifically to address the needs of the marijuana industry, doesn't just provide secure storage vaults. It also arranges armed guards and armored transport across Alaska's road system, alarm systems and more.

The company has three locations: in Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which will also be protected by armed guards.

Larry Clark, Valkyrie CEO, said he's in talks with many companies that have applied for marijuana licenses from the state, reaching from Fairbanks to Anchorage. He's even received calls from Barrow and Sitka.

"We're trying to be the extra layer of security," he said.

But it won't be simple for Valkyrie to provide these services. For one thing, it's no small task to transport cash and pot some 350 miles between Alaska's largest city and Fairbanks in an unassuming armored SUV. Clark said the company is constantly vigilant about someone trying to hijack its operations.

"Some of the costs the company is absorbing in the beginning to make this all happen, and show the state and municipal leaders that this is a very viable industry but it has to be handled very carefully … We don't want to see an increase in crime," Clark said.

Wasilla-based Cheeky Monkey is hoping to become the "Starbucks franchise of cannabis dispensaries," said co-founder Joshua Furlong. But there are big challenges in the effort to go national and international, considering banks and even PayPal have put up roadblocks.

"The whole money side of things, that's the most difficult part of the business," Furlong said. "We still get turned down by the banks. It makes it difficult for security, transparency and legality."

Right now, though, there aren't many options, despite the want and need.

"We want our community to be served," Anselm said. "The state of Alaska is open for business."

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