With the state’s marijuana sector slowly gaining steam, Massachusetts banks and credit unions are expanding the services they offer to recreational cannabis companies, testing just how closely federally regulated financial institutions can work with an industry that sells a federally illegal drug.
The GFA Federal Credit Union in Gardner, which last August became the first institution in the state to openly serve recreational operators, told the Globe it is preparing to extend loans as early as this fall to licensed companies that grow, process, and sell marijuana.
While a final decision has not been made about whether to go ahead with the effort, GFA chief executive Tina Sbrega said the credit union hopes to find a way forward regardless of whether Congress acts on bills to remove much of the legal risk.
If it does decide to launch a loan program, GFA would become one of just a few — if not the only — US financial institutions openly lending to marijuana companies.
“We are examining it and working it hard because we understand these are legitimate businesses,” Sbrega said. “The demand is there and the need is there.”
Meanwhile, Century Bank of Medford, the first bank to serve medical marijuana firms in Massachusetts, has quietly opened its doors to recreational operators, too, according to three people familiar with the company’s operations. It joins GFA and Swansea-based BayCoast Bank as the only institutions in the state known to work with such companies.
The move represents a reversal: In December, Century president and chief executive Barry Sloane insisted to the Boston Business Journal that his bank would not work with recreational pot companies “until and unless” federal law changes. He declined to comment for this story.
It’s unclear what prompted Century’s policy change; while significant new political momentum has gathered behind efforts to reform federal marijuana laws, proposed bills that would make it easier for banks to work with cannabis firms or even legalize the drug nationally have yet to pass in either chamber of Congress.
However, most of Century’s medical cannabis clients are also seeking recreational permits, raising the possibility that they would be forced to work with two different banks — or ditch Century for an institution willing to service both aspects of their businesses.
So far, financial institutions that follow extremely onerous federal guidelines have not been prosecuted for working with state-legal marijuana firms. But the risks, plus the cost and complexity of vetting potential clients and complying with those federal guidelines, have kept most banks on the sidelines.
Sbrega said GFA’s nearly year-old recreational marijuana banking business — which employs numerous workers to manually monitor every deposit and generate reports for federal regulators — is not yet profitable, though she expects it will break even this year.
“There are a lot of costs and it’s very labor-intensive,” Sbrega said. “But long term, we see this . . . adding to profitability.”
GFA offers mortgages to landlords whose buildings host marijuana firms as tenants, and checking accounts, mortgages, and auto loans to workers in the industry. It’s also working with outside partners to launch insurance policies, mutual funds, and 401k programs for its marijuana clients, who often struggle to find willing providers.
Besides federal law, one reason others have hesitated to offer loans — and why GFA is moving cautiously — is that reliable collateral is hard to come by in the pot business. Buildings and equipment could hypothetically be seized at any time by federal agents (though there’s no indication of a looming crackdown), and banks could not legally seize large inventories of marijuana products. Similarly, the businesses cannot avail themselves of federal bankruptcy, meaning creditors could be left holding the bag if a pot company dissolves.
“Deposit accounts are one thing — you’re just moving money back and forth — but lending, that’s a much stickier relationship,” said Jon Skarin, senior vice president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association. “[GFA] would be the first bank or credit union in the country I know of to do it.”
If GFA moves forward with lending directly to pot operators, Sbrega said it would begin by offering loans only for the purchase of real estate and expensive cultivation and processing equipment, assets that could serve as collateral.
Interest rates would be between 5 and 10 percent, compared with private capital interest rates that can be as high as 18 percent.
The potential availability of loans to companies was welcomed by regulators, industry leaders, and activists. They said commercial lending could especially help smaller businesses that lack connections to wealthy investors, including those from communities disproportionately affected by the previous prohibition of marijuana.
“Bringing financing into this industry is really important given the lack of traditional [lending], and it could help us achieve our equity goals,” commission Chairman Steve Hoffman said.
Hoffman said several more Massachusetts banks and credit unions are preparing to work with recreational operators, and that one — that he declined to name — was readying a lending program that would make half its capital available to disenfranchised applicants for marijuana licenses who are enrolled in the commission’s equity and empowerment programs.
“Entrepreneurs who have gone through the process to be certified as these types of applicants . . . would seem like good candidates for loans or investment,” said Commissioner Shaleen Title. “I applaud those banks that share the state’s goals and are seeking to be leaders.”