When the Snohomish County, Washington dispensary Dexter Warren worked at was robbed last year, four men simply walked in. When one of those men hit him in the face with a pistol and demanded he open the safe, the cash-based business had thousands of dollars on hand, he said.
By the time law enforcement arrived 20 minutes later, the men had already left with money and merchandise, said then-assistant manager Warren.
On Saturday, a man working at a Tacoma cannabis retailer was shot, the third fatality related to a cannabis shop robbery within four days. On Wednesday and Thursday, two men each accused of robbing or attempting to rob a retail cannabis store were shot in separate incidents in Bellevue and Covington.
In recent months, Washington retail marijuana store owners, industry leaders and politicians have said armed robberies at pot shops have increased, endangering employees, and have emphasized that solutions are needed at both the statewide and federal levels.
While robberies at retail marijuana stores in Washington are not formally tracked statewide, the Craft Cannabis Coalition, which represents over 50 retail stores in the state, keeps an informal tally with reports from members, said the association’s executive director, Adán Espino. It is possible some robberies are missing from the association’s tally.
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 targets for robberies because of the large amount of cash the businesses have on hand and because there is still a lucrative black market for marijuana, Espino said.
The robbery Wednesday at a Bellevue cannabis store was only the latest in a series, said Molly Honig, the co-owner of Green Theory. In the last year and a half, her four stores in Bellevue and Kirkland have been robbed at gunpoint six or seven times. Police have put a “tremendous amount of work” into solving those crimes, she said, and around half of those robberies have led to convictions.
The next evening, Ryan Evans, director of operations of the local chain Euphorium, said a man put an employee in a headlock and declared he was robbing the store before the store’s ID checker fatally shot him.
“We’re definitely seeing a really ugly trend in the beginning of 2022 and Western Washington,” he said. “Not a lot of relief in sight.”
While recreational marijuana was legalized in Washington in 2012 and most Americans live in places where marijuana is legal in some form, the industry has been shut out of traditional banking services like accepting credit cards since marijuana is still illegal federally.
In the years after the first retail marijuana stores opened, the industry has grown to $1.4 billion in sales and over a half-billion in tax revenue annually, said Washington State Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti. Forcing the industry to deal primarily in cash no longer makes sense from a public safety and government perspective, he said.
One fix that Pellicciotti is advocating for is the SAFE Banking Act, which would effectively open traditional banking services to retail marijuana stores. The act is currently being considered in the U.S. Senate Banking Committee.
Owners and industry groups largely agree passing the act would reduce the amount of cash on premise at a given time and help prevent criminal activity. Espino said access to credit card processing and safe banking would solve “the bulk of our problems.”
“How much longer do we have to put our employees in danger before we do something about this?” he said. “People are starting to get shot.”
The House has passed the act around six times in the past without seeing the proposal become law. “Come hell or high water, Congress must pass the SAFE Banking Act this year,” Pellicciotti said.
“We do not see this in other industries,” he said. “It is not safe.”
Bill to increase sentencing, data sharing on robberies fails
In January, the Washington Senate introduced a bill intended to address safety and security at retail cannabis stores. The bill, which was amended and ultimately did not advance to the House floor for a vote, would have increased sentencing under certain conditions for those convicted of first- or second-degree robbery at a licensed cannabis retail outlet.
The bill would have also required stores to report robberies to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board and directed the state Liquor and Cannabis Board to share information and consult with Washington State Patrol.
During the public comment held at the end of January, Espino testified that 35 robberies had already occurred that month. Chris Thompson, representing the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board, admitted the organization does not have “super good data on the incidents” but that there appears to be an increase in robberies.
Shea Hynes, the co-founder of Lux Pot Shop, testified that in more than 10 years of operating, his employees had never been victim to a robbery until January when his store was robbed at gunpoint three times.
“My staff are scared. I’ve had staff members with guns pointed at their faces twice in the last three weeks,” he said.
Interim director of the Cannabis Alliance, Caitlein Ryan, said while the organization acknowledged the need for solutions, they are neither for nor against it.
“We are deeply concerned that in the end, we will not see an impactful change other than possibly putting 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 in sentencing and that the bill may further drive an “inequitable and catastrophic incarceration endemic.”
Security at dispensaries
Warren said that while getting cash off the premises would help, stores should also protect their employees by paying for security guards and ID checkers or building two-way door systems, where people have to wait in a separate room before being allowed in the room with the merchandise.
While some stores have such measures, Espino said most businesses have to choose between breaking even and paying for security guards, who may not even be working when robberies occur. With cannabis still being illegal federally and businesses not being able to deduct their expenses, the effective tax rate for retail stores can fall between 60% and 70%, he said.
Stores have to make between $100,000 and $200,000 a month to break even, Espino said. Most security companies are also overbooked and are not taking new clients, Honig said. A licensed security guard can cost anywhere from $75 to $100 an hour, according to Evans.
Honig’s store was robbed in the hours before their security guard arrived, she said. Now, she is planning to pay for armed services around the clock.
The “big fix,” she said, would be federal legalization and safe banking and getting cash off the premises. Honig guessed that would allow robbery rates for pot shops to return to rates similar for other retail businesses.
“It’s unfortunate that any business operating legally in Washington has to adopt additional safety protections because of the amount of cash they are operating with,” Pellicciotti said.