SEATTLE (AP) — A rise in robberies at licensed cannabis stores — including a pistol whipping, shooting and murder in Washington state last month — is helping to fuel a new push in favor of federal banking reforms that would make cash-dependent stores less attractive to target.
“It makes absolutely no sense for legal businesses to be forced to operate entirely in cash, and it’s dangerous – and sometimes even deadly – for the employees behind the ledger,” Washington Senator Patty Murray, the third Democrat in the Senate, said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press.
Although 18 states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana and 37 allow its medical use, it remains illegal under federal law. For this reason, big banks and credit card companies have long been reluctant to work with the industry, leaving businesses heavily dependent on cash and making brands attractive to thieves.
During the annual 4/20 marijuana holiday on Wednesday, Murray held a press conference at a suburban Seattle cannabis store to say she would prioritize reforming marijuana banks as part of her job. on a conference committee ironing out differences between the House and Senate versions of a major federal competitiveness and innovation bill.
Murray is just one of 26 senators named to the conference, but cannabis industry activists said they see his announcement as an important signal that after years of hard work, the banking problem may finally be over. be resolved this year, allowing financial institutions to handle marijuana money in states where it is legal without fear of federal prosecution for money laundering or other crimes.
There has recently been a massive increase in theft for reasons that are not entirely clear. Dozens of cannabis businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area were hit last fall by a wave of attacks that at times seemed coordinated. Industry trackers in Washington state have reported at least 80 so far this year, mostly in the Puget Sound area.
While dispensaries are frequent targets of theft, the wave in Washington is helping to fuel the national debate on banking reform. Last month, a suspect fatally shot a cannabis store employee in Tacoma; an identity checker shot and killed a robber in Covington; Seattle police shoot and kill a suspect following a robbery in Bellevue; and a robber pistol-whipped a worker at an Everett store.
Over the past few days, police have arrested a 15-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy in the murder of 29-year-old employee Jordan Brown at Tacoma’s World of Weed. Authorities said the couple were responsible for at least 10 other armed robberies, including several at pottery shops.
“The number of these robberies is shocking,” said David Postman, chairman of the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Over the past month, the board has held public safety discussions with retailers, recruited law enforcement to speak to retailers about best practices, and worked with state financial regulators to implement highlight local banks and credit unions that work with industry as well as third-party vendors. than cannabis retailers that conduct cashless telephone transactions.
Marijuana stores that can afford it have hired private security guards, sometimes at a cost of more than $50,000 a month for 24-hour detail, said Adán Espino, executive director of the Craft Cannabis Coalition, which represents more than 60 retail stores in Washington. Some of the companies have tried hiring guards, only to find the security companies are completely booked, he said.
Espino said he’s been pushing for state lawmakers to give tax credits to cannabis stores that have to shell out money for their security.
Mary Mart, a cannabis outlet in Tacoma, hired armed security in March after it was robbed twice in two months — including, police say, by the two teenagers who killed Brown days later. Budtender Amara Barnes, who was not present for either flight, said she and other employees had their hours reduced to help offset the cost.
“It’s scary. I had worked here for four years without any incident,” Barnes said. “Having a few kids come in and do that, it really shakes the confidence.”
Industry officials and advocates say hiring security personnel and training employees on best practices won’t solve the problem the way federal approval of cannabis banks would.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter introduced the SAFE Banking Act in 2013 shortly after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize the regulated sale of marijuana. The bill would prevent federal regulators from penalizing banks that work with licensed cannabis businesses.
The House has passed it half a dozen times with bipartisan support, but it has never passed the Senate, where it has 42 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, has insisted he would rather see federal legalization of marijuana, along with action to undo the damage done by the War on Drugs, before tackling the banking sector.
Schumer, however, recently announced that his marijuana legislation would not be ready to be introduced this month as originally planned.
Proponents of solving the banking problem see an opportunity first, especially with Murray announcing that she will prioritize it in her work. David Mangone, director of policy and government affairs for The Liaison Group, a Washington, D.C.-based cannabis lobbying firm, announced Murray’s statement. “a reasonably important matter.”
In a letter to Schumer and other senators Tuesday, Perlmutter cited thefts and deaths in Washington state in favor of approving banking reform as soon as possible. He called the banking reform “an immediate solution to take money off our streets and ensure that legitimate and legal businesses can operate like any other type of business.”