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Trump is Putting Illinois Dispensaries at Risk

On December 14, President Trump promised to liberate free markets, propel the economy, and—what else—"make America great again"—all by cutting federal red tape. Standing before huge stacks of paper that were supposed to represent reams of federal regulations, Trump took out a pair of scissors and snipped a long red ribbon. America may be great, but you don't want to overestimate the intelligence of the American people, who may need a little help getting the point. "Let's set free our dream and, yes, let's make America great again," Trump proclaimed. "And one of the ways we'll do that is to get rid of unnecessary regulation." Well, apparently, Trump forgot to break the news to the burgeoning medical marijuana industry and businessmen like Joseph Friedman, the chief operations officer for PDI Medical, a dispensary in the northwest suburbs. Like other dispensary operators in Illinois, PDI Medical is in a pickle because soon there will be no good options for banking in in the state—owing in part to the red tape and oversight now required by the Trump administration. There was one bank in the state—the Bank of Springfield—that took deposits from medical marijuana dispensaries without charging excessive, six-figure fees.

But two weeks ago that bank announced it would be closing the dispensaries' accounts in mid-May. Clearly, it was worried the Trump administration might start to prosecute medical marijuana providers—or their bankers.

"The bank's stance is that protecting their customers is paramount," a Bank of Springfield spokesman told reporters on April 3. "The bank will not jeopardize any of their customers by working with businesses that operate in the legal gray area."

Friedman says the solutions are limited for the dispensary operators. There's not much the state can do to help—since it's the feds who are causing the trouble. There is one bank in Illinois that will take deposits from dispensaries. But that bank charges $100,000 a year to open accounts for dispensaries—and not many dispensaries can afford that. "It's a headache—a headache for the whole industry," says Friedman.

So in the next few weeks, Friedman, like other dispensary operators, will have to figure out where to stash the cash, so to speak, and how to pay the bills without having access to bank accounts to write checks. Not to mention it brings on new security concerns.

"We're going to be at a greater risk," says Friedman. "We're taking all the proper security precautions, but every criminal in the Illinois is aware of what's going on."

Friedman traces the problems to a January 3 memorandum written by Trump attorney general Jeff Sessions "that shifted a change in the federal government's policy toward states that had legalized cannabis." The memo essentially overturned President Barack Obama's Justice Department, although his attitude toward marijuana was only a little better than Trump's. In a typical display of Democratic wishy-washiness, Obama tried to have it two ways as states began to legalize marijuana. Not wanting to upset the Democratic base that favors legalization, but apparently too cautious to take the lead on a controversial issue, Obama opted for the middle way out.

Trump is Putting Illinois Dispensaries at Risk.

In 2013, James Cole, a deputy attorney general in the Obama Justice Department, issued a memo that was sort of the marijuana equivalent of President Bill Clinton's infamous don't ask, don’t tell policy toward gays in the military. Trying to look stern and tough on crime, Cole wrote, "Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime."

But, Cole went on, "the [Justice] Department is also committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the more significant threats in the most effective, consistent and rational way." So, "the enforcement of state law by state and local law enforcement and regulatory bodies should remain the primary means of addressing marijuana-related activities." In other words, we're just gonna sorta—you know—look the other way, even if marijuana is all dangerous and serious. Sessions, whose aversion to marijuana is extreme even for a Republican, though, has vowed not to look the other way. His memo from earlier this year effectively obviates Cole's and puts banks on notice. "Congress has generally prohibited the cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana," Sessions wrote. "These activities also may serve as the basis for the prosecution of other crimes"—including those that violate banking laws. He concluded: "Previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately." In other words, forget that look-the-other-way stuff. Under Trump, the feds, not the states, will decide when and where to prosecute. And the war on drug continues—as though it hasn't already ravaged enough families, neighborhoods, and lives. Add medical marijuana patients to the list.

"Jeff Sessions's ideas and policies need to get updated to current time rather being stuck in the 30s," says Friedman. "I don't know if Jeff Sessions has ever been in a medical marijuana dispensary to see what we do and how we help people. . . . We're needed."

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