Obama issues guidelines for banks on funds from legal marijuana sales

Marijuana plants for sale at a California dispensary in 2009.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration issued guidance to prosecutors and banks Friday meant to make it easier for legal marijuana sellers to open bank accounts.

But the guidance fell short of giving banks carte blanche to get involved in a business that is legal in some states for medical or recreational purposes but is still illegal under federal law.

A memo issued Friday by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to all federal prosecutors said that prosecution may not be appropriate for banks dealing with marijuana sellers if they are operating legally in their states and stay away from red zones, such as the sale of the drug to minors or across state lines. The banks must also follow new Treasury Department procedures.


Although President Obama and Holder have indicated they have no desire to be tough on pot, the cautious move Friday reflects a reluctance to go too far because of solid opposition to marijuana legalization within the ranks of law enforcement.

Several weeks ago DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, in what she thought was a private meeting with sheriffs, was highly critical of recent comments about marijuana by Obama and of the trend toward legalization generally.

Officials who were close to the decision announced Friday but not authorized to speak publicly said that unless Congress acts to change federal law it is unlikely the Obama administration would go further.

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