Bex Heller is the founder of a Massachusetts-based consulting company focused on LGBTQ+ training. Credit: Submitted / Bex Heller

When Bex Heller attempted to crowdfund her cannabis consulting start up, things were going great – for at least the first 24 hours. They were only seeking enough cash to cover minor expenses such as website hosting and retaining an attorney, considering cannabis is still illegal federally.

Heller’s crowdfunding experience was just one more way small cannabis entrepreneurs are stymied by banking and payment rules lined up against cannabis businesses.

“I was gutted to see this after raising over $1,000 for my new business,” wrote Heller on Twitter while posting their termination notice from GoFundMe. “To everyone that donated: I’m hoping to find a platform that doesn’t consider cannabis as ‘prohibited conduct.’”

Heller has a small, Massachusetts-based consulting company focused on LGBTQ+ training, specifically as a means to help cannabis operators recruit and retain employees from the LGBTQ+ community. Heller, who is non-binary, has worked in cannabis since 2018 in various capacities. 

“I’ve been in retail and I’ve been on the corporate side of things and I’m very aware of the fact that unless there are people specifically advocating for our community that we’re going to get pushed to the side,” they said in a telephone interview. 

Prospective operators, particularly those that do not come with corporate backing are having trouble finding enough financing to enter the cannabis market. This is especially problematic given the steep startup costs associated with entering cannabis.

“Finding a bank that wants to operate with me is tough even though I’m not touching plants as a cannabis business owner,” said Heller, adding that they are in the process of legally changing their name which further complicates their specific situation. 

Heller’s story is not entirely unique. Visa and Mastercard do not allow cannabis transactions in the United States – Visa recently announced another crack down on dispensaries using payment accounts that mimic ATMs. And Stripe, which processes electronic payments for small businesses, has repeatedly refused service for cannabis-related businesses. 

“I hopped on GoFundMe with the hopes that I would get some traction and I did,” they said. 

Overnight Heller had raised $1,000, but a few hours later her account was deleted and the money had been refunded. The only explanation they got was that they had violated the website’s terms of service.

“A few hours later. I was with my girlfriend who got an email that said that her donation was refunded and then I hopped online and saw that it had all been canceled. I’ve been kicked off the site because of cannabis,” they said.

GoFundMe’s terms of service does not mention cannabis, but it does list anything related to illegal drugs as being prohibited.

Similar to Heller’s experience, last year, the United Cannabis Patients and Caregivers of Maine attempted to raise money on GoFundMe for an activist fund. The campaign raised $54,000 which was also quickly refunded.

A spokesperson from GoFundMe did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...