Bank bounces caregiver

The owners of Missoula Cannabis Caregivers received unexpectedly harsh news when First Interstate Bank notified the business that its accounts would be closed because the operation violates federal law.

"It kind of puts us in a bad position," says Sara Stevenson, who started the caregiver business in January with partner Robert Ekstedt. They run a storefront clinic on S. First Street in Hamilton.

A letter received by Stevenson March 2 and obtained by the Independent details the bank's position.

"Due to a change in policy," the letter read, "First Interstate Bank will no longer be able to maintain the above referenced checking account, therefore it will be closed in ten days. If the account has a negative balance, you have 10 days to bring it to a positive balance before closing, or we will turn it over for Collection."

First Interstate Bank Vice President Sue Larew says federal privacy regulations prohibit her from answering questions about Stevenson's account. When asked the bank's position on whether it would allow a registered caregiver to open an account, Larew said she would need to obtain a statement from her superior in Billings. That statement was not available before press time.

According to Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Stevenson's situation with First Interstate is not unusual. Once the Obama administration announced last October that the federal government would defer to state medical marijuana laws, it created a boom in "ganja-preneurial" activity.

"That has pretty much raised a green flag, if you will," St. Pierre says.

But the decision didn't technically change the federal law. Thus, St. Pierre can see how national banks like First Interstate may be fearful of potential legal ramifications.

He added that, considering the rate at which the medical marijuana industry is growing in Montana, other banks should be eager to open a new account for Stevenson.

"The free market being what it is," St. Pierre says, "there is a very good chance someone else is willing to do that business."

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