The head of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) told Congress this week that the federal agency would “prefer” for state-legal marijuana businesses to be able to pay taxes electronically, as the current largely cash-based system under federal cannabis prohibition is onerous and presents risks to workers.

During an oversight hearing before the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on Tuesday, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig was asked about the lack of banking access for marijuana businesses and what steps could be done to normalize the market.

Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), who serves as a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said that barring marijuana companies from traditional financial services is “inefficient for business and the IRS alike, obviously, not to mention ample opportunity for fraud and abuse it creates, as well as potential for criminal acts as far as robbing and stealing from those.”

Rettig replied that “the IRS would prefer direct deposits moreso than receiving actual cash payments.”

“It’s a security issue for the IRS. It’s a security issue for our employees in our taxpayer assistance centers, [which] is actually where we receive these payments,” he said. “We created special facilities in the tax to receive the payments. Then we similarly have to transport the payments themselves.”

“Money is fungible. We have to receive it. We don’t make a determination as to what is or is not legal, but the tax payments do come in and we would rather have direct deposits if we could,” the commissioner said.

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in 2019 that he’d like to see Congress approve legislation resolving the cannabis banking issue and he pointed to the fact that IRS has had to build “cash rooms” to deposit taxes from those businesses as an example of the problem.

Marijuana finances also came up this week during a confirmation hearing for President Joe Biden’s pick for deputy secretary of the Treasury.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) asked the nominee, Adewale Adeyemo, whether he feels 2014 Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) guidance should be updated to “set expectations for financial institutions that provide services to cannabis-related industries” and what steps he would take to that end.

“I look forward, if confirmed, to talking to my colleagues at Treasury about this important issue and thinking through what changes may be needed and doing this in a way that’s consistent with the interagency with the president’s guidance,” Adeyemo replied. “In doing that, I look forward to consulting with you and members of this committee on our path forward.”

IRS released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry last year, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.

This update appears to be responsive to a Treasury Department internal watchdog report that was released in April. The department’s inspector general for tax administration had criticized IRS for failing to adequately advise taxpayers in the marijuana industry about compliance with federal tax laws. And it directed the agency to “develop and publicize guidance specific to the marijuana industry.”

The IRS’s commissioner of the Small Business/Self Employed Division participated in a cannabis-focused event in December in which he noted the legalization movement’s continued momentum, saying that it will potentially succeed in ending prohibition in “all states.”

As far as banking is concerned, House Democrats did approve a bill in 2019 that would have protected financial institutions that service the marijuana industry from being penalized by federal regulators. Leadership also attached that measure’s language to two pieces of coronavirus relief legislation last year, but they declined to add it to their latest version, despite having reclaimed the majority in both chambers of Congress and control of the White House.

Many of these financial services issues would also be resolved if Congress passed legislation to federally deschedule cannabis—and there’s a plan in the works on the Senate side to get that done this year.

A trio of senators—Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)—are in the process of drafting a legalization bill. And they recently held a meeting with representatives from a variety of advocacy groups and business associations to get input on the policy change.

-Marijuana Moment

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