FAIRBANKS — Alaska USA Federal Credit Union has restricted 10 personal accounts linked to people starting a marijuana-related business, a spokeswoman for the financial institution confirmed.
It’s a preemptive strike meant to prevent scrutiny from the federal government as the marijuana industry unfolds in Alaska, but breaking ties with personal account holders is an unusual step at this point, when the marijuana industry is still gearing up. No stores have opened; no product has hit the shelves.
Multiple financial institutions in Fairbanks were contacted and no other bank or credit union confirmed it’s closing accounts, but some are monitoring accounts.
Managers at MAC Federal Credit Union did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, and KeyBank declined to say whether they are closing accounts.
The move of closing personal accounts is drawing criticism from marijuana industry supporters who say it’s premature, but bankers said the consequences of accepting deposits that can be traced to the marijuana trade involve criminal prosecution.
Alaska USA Federal Credit Union sent a letter last month to account holders applying for a state license for a cannabis business, asking them to close their accounts by Aug. 19.
“Alaska USA is a federally chartered credit union, we do not offer account services to any person or organization engaged in the operation of a marijuana-related business, or any other type of business that violates federal law,” according to the letter from the credit union’s Fraud Resolution Department.
Elizabeth Behlke, vice president of marketing for the credit union, said the financial institution issued the letter in accordance with federal law.
A Feb. 14, 2014, memorandum from the U.S. Department of Justice holds that financial institutions that conduct financial transactions generated by marijuana-related conduct are subject to prosecution under money-laundering statues.
The Bank Security Act requires U.S. financial institutions to assist government agencies to detect and prevent money laundering.
“It’s important to recognize that banks are held to a high standard of compliance through regular compliance examination,” wrote Jay Blury, marketing and communications director at Northrim Bank, in an email. “It is also important to recognize that federal officials, not only from the Department of Justice, but bank regulators as well, emphasize the importance that banks must comply with all applicable laws — this includes laws against marijuana.”
Northrim Bank is among the financial institutions monitoring accounts for questionable activity.
“If we determine an account holder is engaged in prohibited activity, we would close the account and discontinue the relationship,” Blury wrote.
Wells Fargo, Mt. McKinley Bank and First National Bank of Alaska are also monitoring accounts.
“We will be monitoring the licensing process, and we will reach out to any of our existing customers who are successful in getting a license to discuss our policies,” wrote Patty Mongold, president of Mt. McKinley Bank, in an email.
That no financial institution in Alaska will open an account for a cannabis business is a well-established fact for marijuana entrepreneurs, but personal accounts being scrutinized is a new twist, according to Cary Carrigan, executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association.
“We understand the position of the banking industry, but this all seems a bit premature,” he said. “You certainly don’t arrest people for poaching before they have a line in the water. It doesn’t make sense for the banking industry to go after people who are only applying for licenses. Obviously, it’s not very equitable to people who have only applied for licensing through the state to be forced into determining whether they will have day-to-day financial security or not.”
Kevin Anselm, director of the Alaska Division of Banking and Securities, said financial institutions are free to decline accounts at their will.
“There is no legal requirement for any financial institution to open or maintain any specific type of account for any person or business,” she said in an email.
Anselm said financial institutions Outside have closed or rejected personal accounts for people associated with the marijuana industry.
Some financial institutions in Alaska are discussing the possibility of serving marijuana-related customers, Anselm added.
“These discussions likely include weighing the financial, market and reputational risks of serving or declining marijuana-related accounts,” she said.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.