Pot Community Still Needs Congress to Build Its Business

Marijuana dispensaries still face obstacles after Obama administration announcement.

Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary on May 11, 2010, in Los Angeles.

Jars full of medical marijuana are seen at Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary on May 11, 2010, in Los Angeles.

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The Obama administration announced in August it would not fight state marijuana laws, but Congress still must step in before marijuana dispensaries can become the legal and legitimate businesses they aspire to be.

Medical or recreational marijuana is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. But the dispensaries where clients go to get their weed don't have the same rights as other small businesses in their community.

[DOJ: Marijuana Stores Can Open in Colorado and Washington]

They say federal agencies from the Department of Justice to the Internal Revenue Service have made it nearly impossible to build a business. For example, because pot is still classified as a dangerous drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the IRS does not consider dispensaries in the same category as other small businesses that are able to deduct operating expenses from their taxes.

Pot businesses need Congress to intervene and revise the tax code before marijuana dispensers can get their breaks.

There are more than a dozen lawmakers, including Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., pushing legislation that would give pot stores just that.

"There are still steps that need to be taken to protect individuals and a burgeoning business market," Smith said in a statement.

The other major hurdle for burgeoning pot businesses is their inability to access bank accounts. Under federal law, banks can be prosecuted for harboring drug money in accounts. And even though dispensaries are legal in many states, banks have been hesitant to open up their doors to pot dispensaries because they are governed by federal laws.

[POLL: Majority of Americans Support Marijuana Legalization]

It's forced dispensaries to operate all-cash businesses, which advocates have said make them prime targets for burglaries and exploitation.

Even after DOJ's announcement in August that the federal government would lay off of raids, the American Bankers Association says its clients are reluctant to open up accounts for pot dispensaries. But that doesn't mean they don't want to.

"Until Congress changes the law, there is not a lot a bank can do," says Robert Rowe, vice president and senior counsel for the American Bankers Association. "The risk is still there for a bank and as long as marijuana is illegal, banks have to comply with federal law."

A group of legislators, including Rep. Earl Perlmutter, D-Colo., has teamed up to pass legislation that would correct the oversight, but marijuana advocates are not optimistic their community will see the reforms they need by the end of the year.

[READ: Marijuana Use Creeping Higher, Drug Survey Finds]

The Senate Judiciary Committee will address the conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws Tuesday, but with Congress in the throes of a fiscal showdown, immigration reform, and with the nation on the brink of war with Syria, the marijuana community isn't holding its breath that Congress will act on weed this year or even in this Congress.

"I don't have a lot of faith that the majority will embrace this at all," says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Congress is the logical place where reforms must vetted and passed, but unfortunately this Congress seems fairly detached from this issue."

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