A surge in armed robberies at marijuana stores in Washington highlights the need for Congress to meet the needs of the cannabis industry.
Nearly 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana; more than one dozen additional states have legalized medical marijuana. Yet in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, this burgeoning industry that annually generates billions of dollars still is treated like the back-alley pariah of yore, with marijuana remaining illegal at the federal level.
The connection between federal policy and a spate of robberies is clear: Because marijuana is regarded as contraband, major banks are reluctant to provide full services to proprietors. Cannabis remains a mostly cash industry without access to standard credit-card payments, providing an invitation to thieves.
“It certainly is a concern of ours,” Sgt. Tim Meyer of the King County Sheriff’s Office told The (Tacoma) News Tribune. “Anecdotally, I would say yes, I think we’re seeing an increase.”
The Washington CannaBusiness Association reports there have been roughly 30 robberies since mid-December. Over the past two years, numerous Clark County cannabis dispensaries also have been targeted.
Meyer said: “Certainly word is on the street that these dispensaries hold a fair bit of cash, and in some cases folks are willing to risk their freedom to get it. . . . We’ve got to get the cash out of the business.”
Getting cash out of the business will depend partly on Congress — specifically the Senate. The Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, SAFE, passed the House of Representatives in 2019 but did not advance in the other chamber. It passed the House again last year but is stuck in a Senate committee. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler has voted in favor of the bill in each session.
As Congress.gov explains: “This bill generally prohibits a federal banking regulator from penalizing a depository institution for providing banking services to a legitimate cannabis-related business.”
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., who introduced the 2021 version, said this week: “Cannabis-related businesses — big and small — and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace.”
That resonates in Washington, where the marijuana industry generated $1.4 billion in revenue and $474 million in taxes during 2020. Nearly two-thirds of the tax revenue is allocated to specific public programs outlined by Initiative 502, which was passed by 56 percent of statewide voters in 2012; in Clark County, 50.32 percent of voters opposed the measure.
Despite running a business that is legitimate in Washington, retailers remain on the outside looking in on the big banks. But Bloomberg.com recently reported that credit unions and state-chartered banks are increasingly welcoming cannabis businesses. One industry expert said: “We’re seeing more and more bankers recognize that there’s a clear path to serving these customers. The playbook has been established showing banks and regulators how to work with the industry.”
The hope is that customers won’t have to visit an ATM before shopping. As The Columbian wrote editorially in 2019: “If customers had to use cash every time they stopped for their favorite pint of microbrew, we’re guessing that Congress would get an earful.”
Those members of Congress should start listening to the concerns of the cannabis industry.