A decade into Washington’s legalization of marijuana, the cash-only industry has skyrocketed, leading licensed businesses to grapple with vast stores of cash on-site that render them soft targets for violent crime.
Cannabis retail stores in Washington reported at least 100 armed robberies in 2022 — the most in the past 10 years, according to a tracker run by Uncle Ike’s, a member of Washington’s Craft Cannabis Coalition of over 70 small businesses.
Robberies at retail marijuana stores are not formally tracked statewide by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. However, Uncle Ike’s has kept an informal tally self-reported by businesses and other reports since 2017.
After the state changed the tax structure on cannabis goods in 2017, setting it at 37% to be collected at retail, incidents of armed robberies at pot stores have steadily grown, the tracker shows.
Crimes have become increasingly violent, with the first robbery killing of a retail employee recorded this year at a Tacoma cannabis store in March.
A majority of these robberies were reported at cannabis stores in the Seattle area and the neighboring cities of Tacoma and Bellevue.
The tracker paints a fairly comprehensive picture of robberies reported to local police departments. For example, since 2017 the coalition’s count reports 14 robberies in Bellevue, which corresponds with the Bellevue Police Department’s data on armed robberies of pot shops shared with The Seattle Times.
Access to banking
Cannabis retail stores operate entirely on cash because pot is still illegal at the federal level. This limits the industry’s access to financial institutions — be it for loans, capital, regular bank accounts or credit cards. Without access to these services, retailers are left to handle large amounts of cash on hand.
“There’s probably more cash at cannabis stores than there is at your bank,” said Adán Espino, executive director of Craft Cannabis Coalition.
Vicki Christophersen, executive director of Washington CannaBusiness Association, said the industry is part of a larger trend in increased robberies.
“The difference for us though is because of the presence of so much cash, and in some cases because of the type of product we’re selling, it’s very attractive to folks,” she said.
Robbers know if they can get in the safes, they can get a significant amount of cash, she said, adding “we’re as vulnerable as other retail establishments, but we just have a little higher risk or stake.”
Combined with the continued presence of a black market, this poses a mix of security challenges for licensed cannabis businesses.
“These illicit ‘cartel operations’ still exist and they are not only stealing cash, they are also stealing products — growers too have definitely had robberies,” said Espino.
The increased risks have forced businesses to raise their security measures and walk a fine balance between ensuring the safety of customers and employees, and presenting a pleasant consumer experience.
“Ultimately, we’re not trying to look like compounds with all the raised security, but we’re not left with a lot of options,” Espino said.
For its part, the state Liquor and Cannabis Board held a roundtable with stakeholders early this year to gauge their needs, and hosted regional crime prevention training sessions and sessions for licensees with law enforcement. The board has also contracted a security firm to offer free, voluntary on-site security assessments and discussed legal cashless options available locally.
“Some of the smaller stores don’t have the resources to put in the extra kind of security layers, like extra doors and those kinds of things. So we’re also looking at collaborating with the legislature, so potentially there are some grants that could be created for stores that need assistance,” Christophersen said.
Last legislative session, the state Senate attempted to address concerns with a bill that would have increased sentencing under certain conditions for those convicted of first- or second-degree robbery at a licensed cannabis retail store. It would have also required stores to report such crimes to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, and directed the board to share information and consult with the Washington State Patrol.
The bill did not advance to the House floor for a vote.
The safety of licensed cannabis businesses is a growing concern for Washington as the industry emerges as a key source of employment and revenue.
In 2020, the cannabis industry supported an estimated 18,360 jobs across the state, either through direct, indirect or induced impacts, according to WACA’s 2021 Economic Impact Analysis study.
For every 10 jobs in the cannabis sector, an additional six jobs are supported through either indirect or induced effects across the state, said Spencer Cohen, author of WACA’s study. Further, every dollar in direct sales is associated with 12 jobs across the state economy, he said.
SAFE Banking Act
In 2013, soon after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize the regulated sale of marijuana, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., introduced the SAFE Banking Act to keep federal regulators from penalizing banks that work with licensed cannabis businesses.
The legislation, which has the state Liquor and Cannabis Board’s support, has passed the U.S. House over half a dozen times with bipartisan support, but it has yet to pass the U.S. Senate.
With Democrats currently in control of the Senate, and President Joe Biden’s recent remarks encouraging cannabis legalization, the outlook is once again optimistic.
“Some of our elected officials at the state level and local have really been focused on figuring out what they can do to help,” said Christophersen, drawing attention to the efforts of King County Councilmembers Reagan Dunn and Jeanne Kohl-Welles to create a task force to look into armed robberies of cannabis stores.
A combination of local and state efforts and the SAFE Banking Act together make people safer, Christophersen said.
However, Espino doesn’t regard the SAFE Banking Act as a cure-all for the industry’s security issues. Those issues won’t be eradicated until the cannabis industry is normalized through federal legalization.
“It won’t fix it, but it will help us manage the problem,” he said. “We want to see the industry become more normalized — there’s still so many things we just can’t do as a normal business,” Espino said.
Credit card companies like Mastercard and Visa, and big national banks like Wells Fargo and Chase, are still hesitant to touch the cannabis industry, he pointed out.
“That’s not really going to change drastically until federal legalization, frankly.”
Marking a decade of legalized marijuana in Washington state, The Seattle Times is taking a look at the state’s cannabis industry, including sales and licensing, crime, and social equity and racial diversity in the cannabis trade.