By ERNESTO LONDOÑOAugust 25, 2017
The pharmacies selling pot were doing a brisk business.
Then came the stern letters from American banks.
The letters immediately sent officials in Uruguay scrambling to make sense of the Patriot Act and other American laws that could doom an essential part of their country’s new marijuana market.
American banks, including Bank of America, said that they would stop doing business with banks in Uruguay that provide services for those state-controlled sales.
Afraid of losing access to the American banking system, Uruguayan banks warned some of the pharmacies over the last couple of weeks that their accounts would be shut down, potentially signaling a broader international impasse as other countries, including Canada, set out to legalize marijuana.
“We can’t hold out false hope,” President Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay told reporters this week, adding that his administration was trying to come up with a solution.
The snag mirrors challenges that such businesses have faced in American states that have legalized medical and recreational cannabis. Under the Patriot Act, which was passed weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it is unlawful for American financial institutions to do business with dealers of certain controlled substances, including marijuana. The provisions were designed to curb money laundering and drug trafficking.
The Obama administration indicated in 2014 that banks were unlikely to face penalties for offering services to marijuana businesses in states where the trade is legal, as long they screened accounts for signs of money laundering and ensured that customers followed state guidelines. This enabled some of the businesses to get accounts at credit unions, but major banks have largely stayed away from the expanding industry, concluding that the