Cannabis Boom Exposes Difficulties in Lending
The legalization of cannabis across the U.S. has exposed an interesting opportunity for banks and small business lenders. With tons of capital, insane amounts of cash flow, and an industry outlook that couldn’t be better, banks and lenders should be swarming in droves to get their hands on a piece of the legal marijuana action. Seemingly a match made in heaven, lenders and cannabis cultivators are running into some serious trouble when it comes to how the cash crop operators manage their businesses’ finances.
“We had too much cash to keep in one place,” said Charles Ball, the owner of Ball Family Farms, a wholesale grow operation based in Los Angeles. By stashing cash in different safe-houses around LA, Ball had to operate his completely legitimate and legal business like an illegal operation. “Traditional banking wasn’t an option for us,” Ball said.
“We used to drive the cash around,” said Ball. For recent renovations of lighting fixtures, Ball had to pay $125,000 in cash to the company who did the service for him. Ball also paid taxes in cash, a process in which he had to walk into a Los Angeles government building with $40,000 cash on his person. At the time, there was no bank that was willing to hold the cash for him — even for tax purposes.
Prior to going fully cash, Ball did do business with some big banks, but he realized quickly that they weren’t interested in servicing his cash upon learning what his business was doing.
“They closed my account for wearing a shirt with my business name on it, they put two and two together,” said Ball, when referencing the closing of two accounts with Bank of America and Chase after representatives of the banks saw him wearing his company shirt to make deposits. One of the biggest difficulties of running a cannabis distributor isn’t the growing or the distribution of the product, it’s what to do with the money, according to Ball.
“We had no way of banking,” he said, up until February of this year, when he was able to secure his first type of deposit account with a local bank in the Los Angeles area that was fully aware of what his business was doing. “I have to pay more fees, and I don’t get the same type of customer service, everything is different,” Ball said.
With service fees on his deposit account between $2,000-$3,000 per month, the security of doing business with a bank must be worth the price. When pursuing a loan with that bank to expand his operation however, the lending process was halted at the last second after federal regulators told the bank they wouldn’t allow the deal to go through.
“We were denied on the approval date [of the loan],” said Ball. According to him, the bank told him the FDIC stepped in and killed the deal. Once again, Ball Family Farms was forced to explore other options outside of banking, such as exploring renovation options through landlords or simply waiting until the cash is on hand to make the move. “The banking system in this industry is very flawed,” said Ball.
“We’ve never taken private investor money,” Ball said when asked about whether he had explored any other avenues of receiving a loan. “We took [the start] slowly and it works, we are a ground up operation.”
This problem is not unique to Ball Family Farms. Legal cannabis cash flow has been a major issue since legalization first took place in the states. It seems like local governments want the tax revenue, but the bank’s regulators want to make it difficult for lenders to get their hit off the cash pipe until the federal government changes the law on their end.
The opportunity for funding in the industry isn’t going unnoticed however, as cannabis-exclusive funders and brokers are beginning to pop up across the U.S.
Judy Rinkus, for example, CEO of Seed to Sale Funding, is a Michigan based broker who works exclusively with cannabis businesses.
“[The industry’s] biggest problem is simply finding a lender who isn’t prohibited from lending to cannabis-related concerns,” said Rinkus. According to her, one of the biggest issues is the infancy of the industry, as many cannabis wholesalers and retailers just haven’t been around long enough to be reliable borrowers.
“Most businesses have been established for 3 years or less, they haven’t kept good financial records, and accept a lot of cash payments, and they lack sufficient collateral,” Rinkus said.
Rinkus stressed the importance that real estate plays in giving cannabis businesses borrowing power. “Having real estate to pledge as collateral is key,” she said. “There are ways to get other types of loans, but they are often enormously expensive and are limited to no more than 10% of an entity’s historic revenues.”
Rinkus’ outlook on the industry remains positive, and she remains a supporter despite the difficulties associated with cannabis lending. “Businesses in this space are the true American entrepreneurs,” said Rinkus. “In many areas of the country, they are creating jobs and wealth for folks that would otherwise not have the same chances.”
The outlook on the industry is bright. More states are pushing for legalization, social taboo of marijuana is relatively nil, and the potential of an untapped industry in the eyes of both government and banking are becoming too good to pass up. As the industry begins to cultivate its presence, look for the money surrounding cannabis to creep its way into fintech sooner than later.Last modified: September 15, 2021
Adam Zaki was a Reporter at deBanked.