How Bitcoin Could Serve the Marijuana Industry (With Banks Still Nervous)

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Mike Krieger of Liberty Blitzkrieg blog,

The reason venture capitalists have become so intrigued with Bitcoin over the past year or so is because it is what the industry refers to as a “disruptive technology.” Some of the key tenets of a disruptive technology are that it allows people and businesses within a certain industry (or industries) to do things cheaper, faster, and better than before by a significant, if not revolutionary margin. Bitcoin easily checks all these boxes. Even more than that, it also frees humanity from the vengeful whims, or simply the bureaucratic inefficiencies, of the state apparatus. Case in point, when Wikileaks was unable to access the traditional banking system due to a state sponsored blockade, they were still able to obtain funds through Bitcoin. In fact, that specific example, is the primary reason that I officially got behind Bitcoin in late summer 2012. I made this point clear in my debut article on the topic titled: Bitcoin: A Way to Fight Back Against the Financial Terrorists?

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post. Medical marijuana is already legal in 20 states plus the District of Columbia. It is also completely legal for recreational use in two states; Colorado where I reside, as well as Washington State. Nevertheless, big daddy government still thinks it knows best and continues to classify the relatively benign substance as a schedule one drug under federal law. As such, the banking system, (including state banks) is simply to afraid to get involved. Enter Bitcoin.

Well at least that is what I suspect will happen. As of now, it has been anecdotally reported that one dispensary has made Bitcoin payments an option, but I haven’t seen any clarification as to which one. I see this as a fantastic opportunity for both the Bitcoin community as well as the marijuana industry to come together to solve a major problem. It could be a huge win-win for both. The main question on my mind at this point is whether or not the main Bitcoin payment processing companies Coinbase and BitPay will agree to play along…

*Note: Since the publication of this post a reader pointed out that since the Bitcoin payment processors do utilize the banking system, it doesn’t exactly solve the problem. This is a fair point, but leads me along another thought process. It may indeed end up being a blessing in disguise as it sets up the marijuana industry as the perfect testing ground for use of BTC as an actual currency. Ie, potentially paying suppliers and employees in Bitcoin, perhaps only partially at first. This is going to be fascinating to watch.

First let’s examine the problem. A recent article from the New York Times highlighted it. Here are some key excerpts.

The New York Times writes:

Legal marijuana merchants like Mr. Kunkel — mainly medical marijuana outlets but also, starting this year, shops that sell recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington — are grappling with a pressing predicament: Their businesses are conducted almost entirely in cash because it is exceedingly difficult for them to open and maintain bank accounts, and thus accept credit cards.

 

As a result, banks, including state-chartered ones, are reluctant to provide traditional services to marijuana businesses. They fear that federal regulators and law enforcement authorities might punish them, with measures like large fines, for violating prohibitions on money-laundering, among other federal laws and regulations.

 

“Banking is the most urgent issue facing the legal cannabis industry today,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association in Washington, D.C. Saying legal marijuana sales in the United States could reach $3 billion this year, Mr. Smith added: “So much money floating around outside the banking system is not safe, and it is not in anyone’s interest. Federal law needs to be harmonized with state laws.”

 

The limitations have created unique burdens for legal marijuana business owners. They pay employees with envelopes of cash. They haul Chipotle and Nordstrom bags containing thousands of dollars in $10 and $20 bills to supermarkets to buy money orders. When they are able to open bank accounts — often under false pretenses — many have taken to storing money in Tupperware containers filled with air fresheners to mask the smell of marijuana.

 

The all-cash nature of the business has also created huge security concerns for business owners. Many have installed panic buttons for workers in the event of a robbery and have set up a constellation of security cameras at their facilities beyond what is required, as well as floor sensors to detect break-ins. In Colorado, Blue Line Protection Group was formed a few months ago, specializing in protecting dispensaries and facilities that grow marijuana, and in providing transportation security. The firm largely uses military veterans who have Special Operations experience.

Also in a recent article, CoinDesk alludes to a possible solution using Bitcoin:

At least one marijuana dispensary in Colorado has reportedly begun accepting bitcoin.

 

A somewhat bigger problem for dispensaries lurks in federal law. They cannot accept credit card payments, so all purchases must be in cash – or bitcoin.

 

Banks and credit card companies are playing it safe. They must comply with federal legislation and although it might be possible to come up with a workaround, they do not appear interested at this point.

 

Federal law has forced dispensaries to accept cash, and cash only – but bitcoin is a tempting alternative. Anonymity does not matter, since recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, but with no credit cards in the mix, it is practically the only alternative.

 

Sales of recreational marijuana in Colorado are reportedly exceeding $5m a week, and banks simply cannot enter the fray until regulators give them the green light.

It’s still early days, but this is fertile testing ground for Bitcoin’s disruptive, game-changing capabilities. I will be eagerly watching this story.