As WA marijuana stores see more armed robberies, owners and politicians say there is a simple solution

When the Snohomish County dispensary where Dexter Warren worked was robbed last year, four men simply walked in. hand, he said.

By the time law enforcement arrived 20 minutes later, the men had already left with money and goods, said Warren, then assistant manager.

On Saturday, a man working at a Tacoma cannabis retailer was shot dead, the third death linked to a cannabis store robbery in four days. On Wednesday and Thursday, two men each accused of robbing or attempting to rob a cannabis retail store were shot dead in separate incidents in Bellevue and Covington.

In recent months, Washington marijuana retail store owners, industry leaders and politicians have said armed robberies at pot stores have increased, endangering employees, and stressed that solutions were needed at the state and federal levels.

While thefts from retail marijuana stores in Washington are not officially tracked statewide, the Craft Cannabis Coalition, which represents more than 50 retail stores in the state, is keeping an informal tally with the member reports, said the association’s executive director, Adán Espino. It is possible that some flights are missing from the association’s account.

According to the association’s count, there have been around 67 armed robberies so far in 2022. In 2021 and 2020, the association counted 34 and 27 armed robberies.

Pot shops have long been the target of robberies because of the large amount of money the companies have and because there is still a lucrative black market for marijuana, Espino said.

Wednesday’s robbery at a Bellevue cannabis store was just the latest in a series, said Molly Honig, co-owner of Green Theory. Over the past year and a half, its four stores in Bellevue and Kirkland have been robbed six or seven times at gunpoint. Police have put “a considerable amount of work” into solving these crimes, she said, and about half of these robberies have resulted in convictions.

The following evening, Ryan Evans, chief operating officer of local chain Euphorium, said a man put an employee in a headache and said he was robbing the store before the store’s identity checker could shoot him.

“We’re definitely seeing a really ugly trend in early 2022 and in western Washington,” he said. “Not much relief in sight.”

While recreational marijuana was legalized in Washington in 2012 and most Americans live in places where marijuana is legal in one form or another, the industry has been shut out of traditional banking services like card acceptance. credit since marijuana is still federally illegal.

In the years since the first retail marijuana stores opened, the industry hit $1.4 billion in sales and more than half a billion in tax revenue a year, the treasurer said. of Washington State, Mike Pellicciotti. Forcing the industry to deal primarily in cash no longer makes sense from a public safety and government perspective, he said.

One solution Pellicciotti advocates is the SAFE Banking Act, which would effectively open up traditional banking services to marijuana retail stores. The law is currently being reviewed by the US Senate Banking Committee.

Landlords and industry groups largely agree that passage of the law would reduce the amount of cash available locally at any given time and help prevent criminal activity. Espino said access to credit card processing and secure banking would solve “most of our problems.”

“How much longer do we have to put our employees at risk before we do something about this?” he said. “People are starting to get shot.”

The House has passed the law about six times in the past without seeing the proposal become law. “Come hell or high water, Congress needs to pass the SAFE Banking Act this year,” Pellicciotti said.

“We don’t see that in other industries,” he said. “It’s not sure.”

Bill to increase penalties, theft data sharing fails

In January, the Washington Senate introduced a bill aimed at ensuring safety and security in cannabis retail stores. The bill, which was amended and ultimately not voted on by the House, would have increased the sentence under certain conditions for those convicted of first- or second-degree theft at a retail outlet. of licensed cannabis.

The bill also would have required stores to report thefts to the State Liquor and Cannabis Authority and ordered the State Liquor and Cannabis Authority to share information and consult with the state patrol. State of Washington.

During the public consultation held at the end of January, Espino said that 35 thefts had already taken place that month. Chris Thompson, representing the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Authority, admitted the organization doesn’t have “very good incident data”, but there appears to be an increase in thefts.

Shea Hynes, the co-founder of Lux Pot Shop, testified that in more than 10 years of operation, his employees had never been robbed until January, when his store was robbed three times under the threat of a weapon.

“My staff are scared. I have had staff members with guns pointed at their faces twice in the last three weeks,” he said.

The Cannabis Alliance’s acting director, Caitlein Ryan, said while the organization recognizes the need for solutions, it is neither for nor against.

“We are deeply concerned that ultimately we won’t see any meaningful change other than the ability to put more people in jail with slightly longer sentences,” she said.

Ryan added that someone desperate enough to rob a store is likely unaware of the nuances of sentencing and that the bill could still lead to an “endemic of unfair and catastrophic incarceration”.

Safety in dispensaries

Warren said that while taking cash out of premises would help, stores should also protect their employees by paying security guards and identity checkers or building two-way door systems, where people have to wait. in a separate room before being allowed into the room with the goods.

While some stores have such measures, Espino said most businesses have to choose between breaking even and paying security guards, who may not even be working when thefts occur. Since cannabis is still federally illegal and businesses cannot deduct expenses, the effective tax rate for retail stores can be between 60% and 70%, he said.

Stores need to earn between $100,000 and $200,000 a month to break even, Espino said. Most security companies are also overbooked and not taking on new clients, Honig said. A licensed security guard can cost between $75 and $100 an hour, according to Evans.

Honig’s store was broken into hours before their security guard arrived, she said. Now she plans to pay for 24-hour armed services.

The “big fix,” she said, would be federal legalization, secure banking, and cash removal from premises. Honig speculated that this would allow theft rates from jar shops to return to similar rates for other retail businesses.

“It’s unfortunate that any business operating legally in Washington has to adopt additional security protections because of the amount of money they operate with,” Pellicciotti said.

Staff reporters Christine Clarridge and Daisy Zavala contributed reporting.