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Dec. 3, 2022

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Robbery spike at Washington pot shops has owners on ‘high alert.’ Reliance on cash the problem

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TACOMA — The details are strikingly similar. Armed robbers enter a pot store, often near closing time, and hold employees and customers at gunpoint while cash and product are stolen. Then they take off.

Over the last month or so, according to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, the Washington Cannabusiness Association and law enforcement officials throughout the Puget Sound region, it’s a scenario that’s played out with alarming regularity.

According to Cannabusiness Association spokesperson Aaron Pickus, a running tally among member businesses puts the number of robberies since mid-December at roughly 30. Many of them have been armed robberies, he said.

“It could be higher,” Pickus said recently.

While law enforcement agencies from Whatcom County to Tumwater aren’t keeping a regional tally of pot shop robberies — and the state Liquor and Cannabis Board had not been provided with the Cannabusiness Association’s list, according to LCB spokesperson Brian Smith — most told The News Tribune over the last week that the spike appears real.

“It certainly is a concern of ours,” said King County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Tim Meyer, who’s department’s major crimes unit is currently investigating several recent armed robberies at licensed cannabis retailers. “Anecdotally, I would say yes, I think we’re seeing an increase.”

The common denominator, according to Meyer and many industry professionals and law enforcement officials interviewed by The News Tribune: cash — and plenty of it. Therein lies the problem.

Almost a decade after Washington voters legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana, Congress’s inability to pass legislation that would normalize banking for cannabis businesses and allow them to accept traditional credit card payment — formally known as the SAFE Banking Act — has effectively put a target on their backs. Overwhelmingly, retail pot is a cash business.

“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,” Meyer said. “It is a concern of ours, and we really are hopeful that there’s going to be a systemic change that’s going to let us get in there and fix that.”

“We’ve got to get the cash out of the business,” he added.

Pot shops on ‘high alert’

Of roughly a dozen cannabis retail locations contacted by The News Tribune this week, Jennifer Strom was one of the few who responded — and the only one willing to be identified in print.

The owner of Sweet Jane NW near Purdy, that might be because Storm’s business hasn’t been hit.

Strom has operated Sweet Jane NW since 2016. During that time, she has been the victim of crime; in 2020, two people made off with her ATM machine.

While Strom hasn’t been targeted by a serious crime since, she did say she was well aware of talk of a recent spike in armed robberies — even before state Liquor and Cannabis Board Enforcement and Education Division director Chandra Brady issued an advisory bulletin on the problem Thursday.

“I would say everybody in our industry is on high alert,” Strom said, indicating that the safety of her 19 employees is her primary concern.

“Everyone is really compassionate in the industry, and they’re excited to be in it, but this is like your worst nightmare,” Strom continued. “Everyone is just really scared, and we’re all trying to look out for each other and beef up our security where we can.”

According to Brady, the full scope of recent robberies is something the board is still trying to get its arms around. With so many businesses, so many jurisdictions and so many ways of classifying crimes, it’s difficult to get a precise read on the situation and the data, she said. It’s also unclear whether the problem is Western Washington specific, she said, or how often weapons have been involved.

“We are certainly hearing from our cannabis retail licensees that they’re seeing an increase, and we’re currently — from our own work — seeing what appears to be an increase in this activity,” said Brady, whose agency has regulator authority of legal marijuana sales. “We’re working to make sure that we can provide those licensees with some options to enhance safety at those locations, and to ensure that our officers are prepared with some of those recommendations.”

Many local law enforcement agencies appear to be in the same boat.

In Thurston County — where The Olympian’s Rolf Boone has recently reported on recent cannabis store armed robberies — Tumwater Police Lt. Jennifer Kolb and Thurston County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Chris Packard said the area has experienced an increase in cannabis retail robberies since December, but it’s hard to know what to make of it yet or if the crimes are related.

Packard said the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department is currently investigating three robberies and is working to share information and assistance with law enforcement officials in Lacey and Tumwater working on their own active cases.

Up north, Snohomish County Sheriff’s spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe gave a similar answer, indicating that her department is “actively investigating four robberies at pot shops within the last several months.”

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Deb Slater said there have been two recent pot shop crimes, one a burglary and one an armed robbery.

In Thurston County, law enforcement is trying to get the word out to local retailers, Packard said.

“We have one detective assigned to our three cases, and we’re also working side-by-side with Lacey and Tumwater on their robbery cases as well. Agencies as far away as Mountlake Terrace are kind of working together trying to correlate. I think we’re kind of taking a regional approach,” Packard said.

Pierce County is one place where a recent uptick in cannabis retail robberies has not been observed, according to law enforcement officials.

Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Darren Moss said the agency hasn’t responded to any crimes of that nature so far this year, while Tacoma Police spokesperson Wendy Haddow told The News Tribune, “We haven’t seen any upticks, per se.”

Even so, Haddow confirmed that officers responded to an armed robbery in progress at Zips Cannabis on South 38th Street on Friday, Jan. 21.

According to Haddow, two armed men briefly entered Zips shortly before 10 p.m. and made off with an undisclosed amount of money and marijuana. Responding officers were able to identify a suspected vehicle leaving the scene and briefly gave chase, Haddow said, but were eventually called off.

The owners of Zips declined to discuss the incident, citing fear and safety concerns.

“A couple of responding officers followed a vehicle that was pointed out by people outside the scene prior to anyone having made contact with the business or victims. They followed the vehicle onto southbound I-5 at a distance waiting for the establishment of probable cause. They were directed back to the scene and never initiated a traffic stop,” Haddow said.

“There were two suspects and nine victims, 10 if you include the business itself,” Haddow added.

Public safety issue

Pickus, the spokesperson for the Cannabusiness Association, said there are several steps that could be taken to help keep Washington pot retailers and their employees safe while reducing the likelihood that they’ll be the victim of an armed robbery.

At the state capitol in Olympia, Pickus said, the association is supporting legislation that would increase the penalty for pot shop robberies — making the punishment comparable to pharmacy robberies — and is also pushing for the creation of a law enforcement task force to specifically focus on the problem.

On the ground, Pickus also said that the Cannabusiness Association is helping distribute information and best practices to local retailers, which often includes guidance on security measures that can be taken, like hiring armed guards.

Jacob Bradley is one of those security guards. As the owner of Bradley Public Safety Group, Bradley said his company is currently working with roughly 20 retail cannabis retailers in Western Washington, making up roughly 50% of his business.

When discussing the spike in cannabis robberies, Bradley — who also has a background in local law enforcement — said the biggest thing he tries to stress to retailers is the obvious: money and marijuana aren’t worth dying for.

“Robbers typically want two things: they want cash and products, and they want to get in and out as quickly as possible,” Bradley said. “Don’t be a hero for property.”

More broadly, Pickus acknowledged that security measures only go so far, and that cannabis retailers’ forced reliance on cash will likely continue to be a problem until federal lawmakers finally address it.

Smith, with the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, agreed.

“Washington is ahead of many other states, and is probably the nation’s leader in access to banking for these businesses. … However, you can’t get past the last hurdles, which are allowing these businesses to allow typical credit card transactions,” Smith said.

“It’s common sense to say that this is a public safety issue that needs to be addressed at the federal level, and they need to do it soon.”

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