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Bank’s refusal to process payments slows medical marijuana in Florida

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. >> Want a medical marijuana ID card? After getting a doctor’s permission, you’ll need to mail a paper check to Tallahassee and wait about 30 days.

Florida officials say the process of issuing tens of thousands of ID cards is being slowed in part by Bank of America’s refusal to touch online payments for medical marijuana cards.

Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America processes payments for the Florida Department of Health, but it “explicitly refused to handle money coming from patient and caregiver card applications,” said Christian Bax, head of the state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

The agency is searching for another company that will process online payments. Banks have been leery of the nation’s growing cannabis industry. Even as many states pass laws decriminalizing weed, the federal government considers pot illegal. Banks rely on Washington for such services as check clearing through the Federal Reserve and deposit insurance through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and they’re not keen to invite scrutiny from regulators.

“The state of Colorado has a vendor who’s willing to process their online payments,” Bax said this week during a meeting of the House Health Quality Subcommittee in Tallahassee. “We don’t at this point.”

That means state employees have been opening envelopes and depositing checks.

“Checks are something that have to be physically processed, they have to be sorted, they have to be tracked,” Bax said.

The state’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use is in the midst of hiring an outside company to collect payments and issue medical marijuana ID cards, Bax said. Once patients can pay online, the process could take as little as a few days, he said.

Florida’s new medical marijuana program has proven popular with patients. Doctors had approved 52,273 Floridians for the state’s pot program as of Wednesday, but just 31,418 cards had been issued. Patients must have a card — or at least a recent email saying the card is in the mail — to buy cannabis from one of the state’s marijuana producers.

The chairman of the Health Quality Subcommittee expressed surprise at Bank of America’s refusal to process payments for state licenses.

“I understand why financial institutions are having a hard time accepting payment under federal banking guidelines,” said Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa. “But presumably, in this case, it’s a vendor processing payment for a license to the state of Florida.”

A lack of banking services has been an ongoing challenge for the marijuana industry. Cannabis is a cash-only industry, although many dispensaries allow patients to pay with debit cards.

Payment processing isn’t the only issue for Florida’s marijuana IDs, Bax said. Photos also are a challenge.

In addition to getting a doctor’s permission and mailing a check, patients also must provide photos similar to the images on driver’s licenses and passports. The state rejects some photos because they don’t meet legal requirements, Bax said.

The Office of Medical Marijuana Use hopes to solve that problem by partnering with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to use driver license photos for marijuana ID cards.

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