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Warren wants to pull pot shops out of banking limbo

As pot shops sprout in states that have legalized the drug, they face a critical stumbling block — lack of access to the kind of routine banking services other businesses take for granted.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, is leading an effort to make sure vendors working with legal marijuana businesses, from chemists who test marijuana for harmful substances to firms that provide security, don’t have their banking services taken away.

It’s part of a wider effort by Warren and others to bring the burgeoning $7 billion marijuana industry in from a fiscal limbo she said forces many shops to rely solely on cash, making them tempting targets for criminals.

After voters in Warren’s home state approved a November ballot question to legalize the recreational use of pot, she joined nine other senators in sending a letter to a key federal regulator, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, calling on it to issue additional guidance to help banks provide services to marijuana shop vendors.

Twenty-eight states have legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational use.

Warren, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, said there are benefits to letting marijuana-based businesses move away from a cash-only model.

“You make sure that people are really paying their taxes. You know that the money is not being diverted to some kind of criminal enterprise,” Warren said recently. “And it’s just a plain old safety issue. You don’t want people walking in with guns and masks and saying, ‘Give me all your cash.””

A spokesman for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said the agency is reviewing the letter.

There has been some movement to accommodate the banking needs of marijuana businesses.

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of the Treasury gave banks permission to do business with legal marijuana entities under some conditions. Since then, the number of banks and credit unions willing to handle pot money rose from 51 in 2014 to 301 in 2016.

Warren, however, said fewer than 3 percent of the nation’s 11,954 federally regulated banks and credit unions are serving the cannabis industry.

Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade organization for 1,100 marijuana businesses nationwide, said access to banking remains a top concern.

“What the industry needs is a sustainable solution that services the entire industry instead of tinkering around the edges,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to be fully in favor of legalized marijuana to know that it helps no one to force these businesses outside the banking system.”

Sam Kamin, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who studies marijuana regulation, said there’s only so much states can do on their own.

“The stumbling block over and over again is the federal illegality,” he said.

The federal government lumps marijuana into the same class of drugs as heroin, LSD and peyote. Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration has essentially turned a blind eye to state laws legalizing the drug, and supporters of legalizing marijuana hope Republican President-elect Donald Trump will follow suit.

Trump officials did not respond to a request for comment. During the presidential campaign, Trump said states should be allowed to legalize marijuana and has expressed support for medicinal use. But he also has sounded more skeptical about recreational use, and his pick for attorney general, Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, is a stern critic.

Some people in the marijuana industry say the banking challenges are merely growing pains for an industry evolving from mom-and-pop outlets.

Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, one of the nation’s largest providers of medical marijuana products, said it’s up to marijuana businesses to make sure their financial house is in order.

“It’s not just as simple as asking the banks to open their doors,” Vita said. “The industry also needs to develop a set of standards that are acceptable to the banks.”

Pot and profit: Business owners replace idealists in marijuana movement

Business owners are replacing idealists in the pot-legalization movement as the nascent marijuana industry creates a broad base of new donors, many of them entrepreneurs willing to spend to change drug policy.

Unlike in the past, these supporters are not limited to a few wealthy people seeking change for personal reasons. They constitute a bigger coalition of business interests. And their support provides a significant financial advantage for pro-legalization campaigns.

“It’s mainly a social-justice movement. But undoubtedly there are business interests at work, which is new in this movement,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, a one-time pot-shop owner and now head of a Denver marijuana consulting firm.

The donors offer a wider foundation of support for the marijuana-related measures on the ballot next month in nine states. The campaigns are still largely funded by national advocacy organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project and the New Approach PAC. But those groups are less reliant on billionaire activists.

On the other side, legalization opponents are attracting new support from businesses as diverse as trucking, pharmaceuticals and even gambling.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to pass ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., followed in 2014. The result is a bigger pool of existing businesses that see expansion potential in more states authorizing use of the drug.

Take Darren Roberts of Boca Raton, Florida, co-founder of High There!, a social network for fans of pot. He donated $500 this year to a campaign to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Florida. Roberts is also encouraging his customers to donate to legalization campaigns in their own states.

“I would say it’s a combination of both the philanthropic social interest and the potential financial interest,” Roberts said.

All five states considering recreational marijuana _ Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada _ have seen more money flowing to groups that favor legalization than to those fighting it. The same is true in the four states considering starting or reinstating medical marijuana _ Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota.

The donors who contribute to anti-legalization efforts have changed, too.

Some deep-pocket donors who drove opposition campaigns in years past are opening their pocketbooks again.

Casino owner Sheldon Adelson of Nevada, for example, gave some $5 million in 2014 to oppose a medical-pot measure in Florida. This year, as his home state considers recreational pot and Florida takes a second look at medical marijuana, Adelson has spent $2 million on opposition in Nevada and $1 million to oppose legalization in Massachusetts.

Other casinos are donating to Nevada opposition efforts, too, including MGM Resorts International and Atlantis Casino & Resort. Nevada gambling regulators have warned that marijuana violates federal law.

Some new opponents have also emerged, moving beyond the typical anti-pot base that includes law enforcement groups, alcohol companies and drug-treatment interests.

A pharmaceutical company that is working on a synthetic version of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, Insys Therapeutics Inc., has given at least $500,000 to oppose full marijuana legalization in its home state of Arizona.

The company did not return a message for comment on the donation. Company officials said in a statement last month that Insys opposes the Arizona ballot measure because marijuana’s safety has not been demonstrated through the federal regulatory process.

Other new names popping up in opposition disclosures include U-Haul, which gave $25,000 to oppose legalization in Arizona, and Julie Schauer, a Pennsylvania retiree who gave more than $1 million to a group opposing legalization. Neither returned messages seeking comment on their donations.

Smaller donors to opposition campaigns say they are hopelessly outgunned by the young pot industry, but are giving out of a sense of duty.

“Everyone’s talking about it like it’s a done deal, but I can’t sit by when I’ve seen firsthand the destruction that marijuana does to people,” said Howard Samuels, a drug-treatment therapist in Los Angeles who donated some $20,000 to oppose recreational legalization in California.

Samuels and other marijuana opponents insist that the pot industry cynically hopes to get more people addicted to the drug to line its own pockets, comparing pot providers to tobacco companies.

But marijuana-industry donors insist that they are simply carrying on a tradition started by the tie-dye wearing drug activists who pushed legalization long before there was any business model attached to it. They insist they would contribute financially even without any money-making potential.

“When a movement becomes an industry, of course the advocacy picture gets shuffled,” said Bob Hoban, a Denver attorney specializing in marijuana law and a $1,000 donor to the Marijuana Policy Project. “It shifts away from activists to more traditional business interests, because the skill sets don’t exactly transfer.”

Give the gift that lasts forever: A great experience

Buying presents for people is hard. So stop doing it — and get them something they’ll like even better.

Both scientific studies and good old common sense are increasingly arguing that material goods aren’t as fulfilling as shared experiences. According to one study by psychologist Thomas Gilovich, while people believe buying or receiving things will bring them happiness and satisfaction, it’s actually experiences — vacations, group adventures, time spent with friends and family — that provide long-term happiness.

That’s great to know in theory. Now put it into practice. In addition to all the boxes you’re thinking of putting under the proverbial tree this holiday season, consider some of these experiential options for your gift list.

DRINK WITH PAINTER’S INK

Throughout childhood, kids are tasked with making art — finger-paintings, doodles, Play-Doh sculptures. As adults, we rarely have the luxury of artistic creation.

Perhaps that’s why the idea of painting and drinking has taken off across the country — it’s the perfect blend of juvenile and grown-up relaxation.

The concept is simple: show up, have a drink, paint something. Most of the time, you’re led by an instructor, but many groups also offer free painting days, when you can explore independently.

For a good example of what you can expect, consider Splash Studio, 184 N. Broadway, Milwaukee (splashmilwaukee.com). Co-owner Marla Poytinger and husband David opened the painting bar in 2012 as a way to blend her background in arts management and his former work in logistics for the beer industry.

Splash offers eight or nine three-hour sessions a week, each featuring a local artist, for $29 ($34 on select days). When participants arrive, Splash provides them with a canvas, easel, paint, brushes and an apron, as well as a full-service bar. The artist then walks the group through the session’s featured painting — although Marla says participants are free to paint something of their own choosing.

At the end of the session, the painters get to take the original art home, which means giving someone a Splash Studio experience is, in a way, giving a material gift too.

Splash specifically caters to an adult crowd (participants have to be 15 or older), and only has a Milwaukee location, so it may not be the perfect gift for recipients who would want to bring their kids or who live outside southeast Wisconsin. Other painting bar options to consider: Vino and Van Gogh (Madison, vinoandvangoghmadison.com), PaintBar (Delafield and Madison, paint-bar.com), A Stroke of Genius (Waukesha, paintwinestudio.com) and national franchise PaintNite, which holds its events in bars and other venues throughout southeast Wisconsin (paintnite.com).

EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY

Have a friend who’d rather get out of the house than get a gift? Two smart, scrappy startups offer a solution: A modern-day twist on the coupon book that’ll feel adventurous, not cheap.

The more established of the startups is City Tins (citytins.com), started by Christin Cilento Ladky and Tara Laatsch as a fundraiser idea. The company sells tins of coasters that double as coupons for area businesses, offering gift recipients a more affordable night out and an excuse to try new things. All tins are $30.

The company offers restaurant and bar & lounge coaster sets for Milwaukee and Madison. Each tin contains more than 20 coasters offering $10 off a $25 tab. New this year in Milwaukee is a performing arts tin, with each coaster providing a buy one, get one ticket offer. And Ladky says the company hopes to launch a pet goods-focused tin in the spring to target a new niche and to give something to offer after the other tins sell out during the holiday season — as they always do.

If your gift recipient is really just a beer person, you could try this year’s PubPass (getpubpass.com). PubPass offers a passport-like booklet for $25 that entitles the holder to free beer at 25 local establishments throughout Milwaukee. Co-founder Jake Nyberg says the company pursues bars that are “places we would take our friends who were in from out of town.” Most, but not all, of the 25 bars specialize in craft beer.

GET OUT — OF A LOCKED ROOM

For many people, being trapped in a room with no easy way out would be a nightmare. For the rest, consider offering them an opportunity to jump on a new 2015 trend: escape rooms.

Already a hit abroad, escape rooms have been springing up across the United States over the past few years, as entrepreneurs hop on the bandwagon. Essentially, escape rooms are real-life versions of puzzle mysteries that are ubiquitous across other forms of media — like the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure — in which a hero or group has to decode a series of increasingly complex clues to get out of a room before time runs out. In the real-world version, the consequences of time running out are much lower, but the challenge provides a thrill that increases the excitement of solving each consecutive puzzle.

Themes of individual rooms vary, as do difficulties. Escape Chambers (escapechambers.com), a franchise with locations in Milwaukee and Madison, has rooms like “The Assignment” (group members play FBI agents trying to prove a history professor is a criminal mastermind), “The Heist” (groups are thieves hoping to rob an art gallery and get away with it) or “The Raid” (a drug raid turns bad when the group finds a time bomb instead). Because a room isn’t fun for participants after they solve it — or if they solve it — escape room companies will change rooms throughout the year.

Tickets for rooms average around $30, but vary from company to company. For other options, consider checking out: Escape Room Wisconsin (Appleton and Green Bay, escaperoomwisconsin.com), EscapeMKE (Milwaukee, escapemke.com) and Seven Keys to Escape (Racine, sevenkeystoescape.com).