Banking on Pot: Arizona's Banks and Medical-Marijuana Dispensaries Seek an Unprosecutable Relationship

On a recent Friday afternoon, Nick Kriaris, owner of Encanto Green Cross medical-marijuana dispensary in Phoenix, and his brother, Chris, tried to open an account at Bank of America for their nonprofit business with $420 in cash.

The attempt at the bank branch at 3030 North Central Avenue was, to some extent, a stunt, from the pot-culture-inspired amount of the initial deposit to the dispensary employee videotaping his bosses. They knew the odds of success were minimal, if not zero.

But if the bank agreed to take the medical-marijuana retail shop's money, it would have been something of a minor historical moment. Although dozens of dispensaries are authorized to operate in the state, no bank will deal openly with them -- yet.

At first, things went smoothly.

The young bank representative behind the desk was gracious and happy to be able to open a new business account. The hopeful businessmen tried to be as transparent as possible. The brothers, both in their late 40s, wore black T-shirts with the dispensary's logo, featuring a cross with a green marijuana leaf in the middle. Nick Kriaris presented his certificate to operate, issued by the Arizona Department of Health Services, and required business documents. The representative got a woman from the bank's credit card services office on the phone, because Kriaris wants to offer his customers the same convenience of any other retail outlet.

"They have all their paperwork -- they're doing quite a bit of transactions," the bank representative told the woman. "It's a medical-marijuana dispensary. Mm-hmm. Okay. They're licensed through the state and everything. I could fax all that to you if you need it."

Then he hung up. "She says she'll call back."

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern