The imperative of upping the momentum for banking transactions in the legal cannabis industry in Jamaica
Cannabis being grown in a greenhouse.

With bated breath and much hope, the cannabis players in Jamaica and the rest of the region continue to look to the USA for a solution to the ongoing banking conundrum. Without a doubt, they are looking forward to amendments to the USA banking law(s). Such hope was rekindled by recent news report, October 31, 2022, headlined "Schumer says Congress is very close to passing Marijuana Banking Bill and Expungement Bills after work with a bunch of republicans". Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is quoted to say, among other things, that Congress is getting very close to introducing and passing a Marijuana Bill with provisions covering banking access for legal cannabis businesses, citing progress he has made in discussion with a bunch of Republican senators.

Some have argued that if passed in the USA, the SAFE Banking plus or some version of SAFE Banking Act could transform the cannabis industry. Banks would be permitted to provide full range or ranges of financial services to licensed cannabis companies. No doubt, the correspondent banking concerns, which prevent banks in Jamaica and the region from conducting businesses with licensed cannabis operations would become a thing of the past. But we are not there yet, greater drive is needed by policymakers to push for urgent changes that will help the fledging cannabis industry to gain or maintain needed footing.

Cannabis flowering.

It is not lost on us that after well over seven years of amending Jamaica's Dangerous Drugs Act to provide for, among other things, the creation of a regulatory authority — the Cannabis Licensing Authority — to enable the establishment of a lawful regulated industry in hemp and ganja for medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes, and the gazetting of the Dangerous Drugs (Cannabis Licensing) (Interim) Regulations, 2016, the reality of lack of adequate banking caused by restrictive United States' federal legislation remains a hurdle to overcome in Jamaica. Like a well-rehearsed chorus, correspondent banking concerns have been repeated in response to questions relating to banks shunning licensed cannabis companies in Jamaica.

If we are to be proactive, and not reactive, it is hoped that the local banking fraternity together with all governmental, industry and agricultural entities are actively reviewing the proposed SAFE Banking Act alongside the relevant local banking laws. This would seek to properly acquaint with the proposed provisions so Jamaican cannabis industry players are properly poised to optimise the opportunities that will arise. Also, engagements at this early stage can also seek to influence the US legislative amendments in such ways that Jamaica and the rest of the region can benefit. This would not be new, as many countries around the world regularly and actively seek to promote their national interests in key jurisdictions. However, we must act with great alacrity and consistency in this matter.

Cannabis flowers harvested for the market.

One may ask what about the well-touted track and trace systems being utilised in the regulated cannabis industry to aid in preventing any form of diversion of cannabis to the illicit market or inversion of cannabis from the illicit market to the licensed premises. Is such a system too low down the pro tempore to gain the confidence of bankers, or is it inadequate? If the response is in the negative, then it's incumbent on the authorities, with the urging of stakeholders to upgrade the existing monitoring provisions to desirable levels.

I must hasten to say that the current banking system is not ideal for cannabis businesses. While the ganja industry continues to evolve in Jamaica and other Caricom countries, the dilly dallies or hesitancy in having access to banking services continues to hamstring the nascent regulated industry and its diversity.

It has been reported that "Americans firmly believe that now is the time to resolve the ongoing conflict between state and federal law to allow banks to serve legal cannabis and cannabis-related businesses". Without a doubt, these sentiments are being echoed in the region among cannabis applicants, licensees, and advocates, just to list a few. Undoubtedly, the resolution of the banking issues is quite likely to simultaneously resolve other areas of challenge in the industry, such as intra-regional and international transportation of legally produced cannabis.

A user with a container of cannabis.

It is felt that the hesitancy of many United States' congressional leaders has served to maintain the restrictive banking legislation. No doubt, a major contributing factor to this hesitancy is some holding on to the archaic prohibitionist approach under the old rhetoric of concerns that cannabis is a major health and social danger to the population, more so to the youth. We should ask those leaders and propagandists against cannabis, why a more scientific approach to the solution of the cannabis concern is not used to modernise the cannabis laws. Therefore, those countries are seeking to maintain the status quo, while this outdated order is bursting at the seams. The passage of time has confirmed by data that the use of cannabis in a regulated framework does mitigate against those very fears that may exist. The hesitant must be cautioned to be visionary and "never throw out the baby with the bath water".

We should always remain mindful that most natural substances can have deleterious effects when not consumed in a responsible, informed and possibly regulated way. Alcohol, for example, immediately comes to mind; consumption can be dangerous when used recklessly and unregulated. Here in Jamaica, we understand that it would be an uphill task trying to convince our fore parents and many elders that white rum is without health and medicinal value, without even mentioning its social value.

Cannabis at various stages of cannabis.

Undoubtedly, the restriction of banking facilitation has immensely stifled the organised development of the cannabis industry that has the opportunity to unleash immense medicinal, social, and economic benefits. Without banking, some have argued that countries with regulated medicinal cannabis industry "have put the cart before the horse"; a resounding no, can be a response to such statement. It is often said in Jamaica's medicinal cannabis regulatory space that "as a country we are building the plane while flying it," otherwise forging ahead while fixing the problems concurrently. It is better to be building and developing the cannabis industry than to be stuck with the stigma and propaganda against cannabis. Cannabis must emerge from its prohibition period as it eventually will.

Annette J Henry, a senior attorney-at-law, International consultant in the cannabis industry and regulatory sector, and the first director of licensing and applications of the Cannabis Licensing Authority with extensive knowledge of the international cannabis industry and in-depth experience in the regulatory and licensing environment.

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