Major Withdrawal: Bank of America throws wrench in the gears of major cannabis study

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Reefer Madness is still alive and well, as evidenced by Bank of America kneecapping one of the best-known cannabis clinical research institutions in the United States.

Officials with Bank of America recently terminated the banking privileges of the Scottsdale Research Institute.

SRI, founded by former University of Arizona professor Dr. Sue Sisley, is in the midst of federally approved clinical trials on cannabis and psilocybin in partnership with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

But now the group must search for a new financial institution, in the wake of Sisley’s recent announcement that Bank of America had abruptly terminated all SRI banking services.

A letter dated Oct. 12 informed Sisley that account activity would be restricted three weeks from the notice and permanently closed 30 days from that time, advising SRI to stop writing checks immediately and cancel any ongoing payments.

“There was no negotiating, no warning, no ability for us to speak to somebody who could review our operating agreement with DEA,” Sisley wrote via text. “We have been [marijuana] plant-touching since our start with Bank of America 10 years ago and have always been transparent about that.” 

Earlier this year, SRI entered into an agreement with the Drug Enforcement Agency to grow high-quality cannabis for the Food and Drug Administration, receiving a blessing from the U.S. government to operate legally.

Sisley says her organization may be close to finding a new institution to handle SRI finances, but wanted to get the story out so the public is aware that even legal operations are being “unfairly targeted” by large banking institutions.

“I’ve been getting so many messages from supporters who want to make sure we are able to continue functioning,” Sisley said of the reaction she’s received since taking the letter to Twitter last Friday. 

Sisley, a psychiatrist by training, has a long history of fighting for the integrity of cannabis research after her work with veterans suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder changed her thinking on the drug nearly two decades ago.

Her work came to prominence in 2014, when UA dismissed her after her efforts to bring clinical studies to the university. She went on to establish SRI, and was finally granted federal approval to embark on a clinical study that was released in March. The marijuana used in the study was low-quality cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi, at the time the only weed allowed by the federal government.

The study’s findings were basically neutral, in large part because of the “lawnmower clippings” that came from UM.

But as the drug has legalized in some form or other in a majority of states, the federal government is loosening its stance on research, and has allowed a handful of facilities to grow commercial-grade cannabis for study. SRI was an early recipient of a license to grow and hopes to see meaningful results in future studies.

“We have a contract with DEA,” Sisley said. “We are growing cannabis for FDA clinical trials and selling it to the DEA. [This is] further proof that the word ‘cannabis’ continues to be completely radioactive even though this is a 100% federally legal operation.”

Fixing federal banking

All of this would be moot if efforts to fix federal prohibitions that tie the hands of financial institutions were successful.

The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was recently attached to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2022 by Congressional Democrats in an effort to circumvent Republicans bent on halting progress on legalization efforts. 

The law would allow “legitimate” cannabis businesses to operate like any other legal business, with access to a full range of banking services.

SAFE enjoys wide support, both in the cannabis and banking industries, but Republicans in the Senate have consistently killed any efforts to pass this or any other legislative attempts on the federal level.

“With legalization polling at all-time highs and myriad states operating controlled markets for both medicinal and adult-use, it is past time for the cannabis industry to be able to enter into relationships with banks and other financial institutions,” Arizona NORML Director Mike Robinette recently said. “The SAFE Banking Act would enable state-licensed and legitimate cannabis businesses to be able to operate like all other legal businesses.” 

The bill passed through the House as part of the NDAA funding package in a 316-113 vote on Sept. 23 and will head to the Senate, where it will likely die unless it gets bipartisan support. This is the fifth time House Democrats have introduced the bill in some form.

Not all Democrats may be on board though, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who chairs the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, may hold out for more comprehensive legislation, such as the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, or the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (H.R. 3884, aka the MORE Act).

As to SRI and its work, Sisley said the only way to move forward is to not look back.

“We need to stay on our path to help the whole plant walk through the entire FDA drug development process,” she said.  

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