Grow, Gift, Repair

Bank loans for Cannabis soon?

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 that would 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 operations. 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, marijuana businesses cannot avail themselves of federal bankruptcy, meaning creditors could be left holding the bag if a pot company dissolves.