Alyse Messmer / The Bellingham Herald
Cannabis shops in Washington state have been hit hard in a recent spate of robberies, prompting those affected to ask federal lawmakers to address their safety concerns over running mostly cash businesses.
Why target cannabis shops?
According to Washington CannaBusiness Association spokesperson Aaron Pickus, more and more licensed cannabis shops have been targeted for robberies because of the federal banking laws that keep their businesses almost strictly cash.
According to Pickus, about 90% of transactions are done with cash, while some shops offer a type of prepaid debit card, leaving the store stocked with cash and products that motivate the robberies.
The Tacoma Police Department has recently responded to five cannabis shop robberies in seven days, and investigations are underway.
Kevin Heiderich, co-owner of House of Cannabis in Tacoma which was robbed on February 14, said three of his employees had guns held to their heads as the robbers stole about $6,000 in cash. Last week, Olympia police called for help in identifying those involved in a similar robbery at Forbidden Cannabis in Lacey who were captured on security camera.
“The robbery began and was over in two minutes,” Heiderich said. “They walked in at 11:42 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, 18 minutes before closing time. Clearly their first method was to control the employees, they forced them into the back room, held guns to their heads on the ground, and one of the robbers returned to the front and emptied all the tills.”
“We want to make things as safe as possible for our employees and customers. Thankfully no employees were hurt,” Heiderich said.
This was the second time House of Cannabis’ Tacoma location has been robbed, the last robbery taking place in August 2020.
More employees and customers throughout the recent spike have been threatened and held at gunpoint, some robbers even hitting multiple shops in one night.
“We do know that law enforcement is acting on this, and it will remain a concern for safety until things change,”notes CannaBusiness Association’s Pickus. “The spike is from many things. People have known about the flow of cash since it was legalized. Masks also make it easier for someone who has an intention of robbing your store to hide their face, which is likely a factor. Every incident is different. Whether you agree with cannabis legalization or not, this is a safety issue.”
How businesses are addressing the safety issue:
Pickus and the CannaBusiness Association are sounding the alarm on safety concerns and trying to educate others, particularly federal lawmakers, that a mostly-cash business poses a potential threat to the safety of those in the building — employees and customers alike.
“There is disagreement on what the best path forward is for legalization of cannabis, but people are seeing the need for public safety and support this just as someone would if it was farmers markets getting targeted,” Pickus said. “Because of the spike we’re looking at what we can do locally, because who knows when Congress will change and support this.”
Bills are currently going through legislation to turn the prohibition around and allow cannabis shops to collect payments in safer ways. Pickus also mentioned a few efforts in Olympia that would increase penalties for targeting a cannabis store to as much as targeting a pharmacy.
“There’s no one silver bullet here, there are short term and long term efforts that are aiming at the heart of normalizing banking and having these business and safety concerns be addressed. There has been a strong spike and one policy change won’t fix the whole problem,” Pickus said.
For store owners like Heiderich, the large flow of cash seems to be putting targets on their backs.
“Cash is all that we are allowed to take. It’s federal law that has made us a soft target. It is in the interest of everyone to keep the money safe, not just for our store but for the government as well. We are allowed to contract armed security guards or off duty personnel and have them in our store, but our store can’t support that on it’s own. I have little faith that Congress is going to pick up the Safe Banking Act, which would potentially eliminate cash safety concerns. Action on the federal level is what really needs to happen to get over the cash only issues,” Heiderich said.
The Washington CannaBusiness Association continues to encourage shops to practice the best safety and security protocols, while continuing to advocate for the legalization of the use of cards for cannabis shops through the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow money from cannabis transactions to be accepted federally, normalizing the cannabis business countrywide and allow these businesses to bank money just as other stores do, although the possession, use and sale of cannabis remains illegal under federal laws.
“My overarching feeling after all this is that I love this city, I want this city to grow and develop in a thoughtful way that prioritizes our arts and community members first. And acting out violently against our community members is really not acceptable and I’d love to see more decency. I want our community members to care about the other community members and have more love for everyone during this time. Everyone is having a rough time, no matter politics or religions,” Heiderich said.