Thefts and deaths renew calls for Congress to pass legislation allowing cannabis companies access to banking services

By Gene Johnson, The Associated Press

SEATTLE— A rise in thefts from licensed cannabis stores — including a pistol whipping, shooting and murder in Washington state last month — is helping to fuel a new push for federal banking reforms that will would make cash-dependent stores a less attractive 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,” said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the third Democrat. in the Senate. 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 the Salal Credit Union to say she would prioritize reforming marijuana banks as part of her job as a key negotiator. a conference committee that irons out differences in the House and Senate versions. of an important federal bill on competitiveness and innovation.

Cannabis industry activists said they saw his announcement as an important signal that after years of hard work, the banking problem could finally be resolved this year, allowing financial institutions to handle marijuana money. in states where it is legal without fear of federal prosecution, loss of their deposit insurance, or other penalties.

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.

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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 thefts 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. that cannabis retailers can use to conduct cashless phone 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.

Industry officials and advocates say hiring security personnel and training employees in 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.

Twin security cameras and a video screen film the front door of Mary Mart, a marijuana store in Tacoma, Wash., Tuesday, April 19, 2022. An increase in thefts at licensed cannabis stores in Washington state helps fuel a new push for the federal government. banking reforms that would make cash-dependent stores a less attractive target. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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, DC-based lobbying firm, called news of Murray’s statement “reasonably significant.”

Laurie Volpe, the medical coordinator at Mary Mart, a marijuana store in Tacoma, Wash., rings a sale, Tuesday, April 19, 2022, next to a security camera screen. A rise in thefts from licensed cannabis stores in Washington state is helping to fuel a new push for federal banking reforms that would make cash-dependent stores a less attractive target. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In a letter to Schumer and other senators on Tuesday, Perlmutter cited thefts and deaths in Washington state in favor of approving banking reform as soon as possible. He called banking reform “an immediate solution to get money off our streets and ensure that legitimate and legal businesses can operate like any other type of business.”

Colorado Governor Jared Polis is urging Congress to pass the banking bill as well.

During an appearance earlier this month on the National Cannabis Industry Association’s podcast, he said Congress should focus on this legislation first before introducing a bill granting legal marijuana businesses the access to banking services.

“We have to do what we can do and let this break the dam and then move on with it later,” he said.

Colorado Sun writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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