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OpEd: Armed robberies of cannabis retailers require immediate response

The rising tide of dangerous armed robberies of cannabis retail small businesses requires urgent action from elected leaders at all levels of government. Because of current banking laws, cannabis retail stores are cash-dependent businesses, making them a target for armed criminals looking for a quick score. As a result, cannabis retail store employees are facing daily danger. Those of us in the retail cannabis community are shaken, as the violence associated with these robberies escalates.

People are dying. We at the Craft Cannabis Coalition (CCC), which represents more than 50 cannabis retailers, are devastated by the loss of a valued employee, friend, and coworker at World of Weed in Tacoma, who was shot and killed during a recent robbery. There are no words. This is the second employee victim of gunfire following the shooting at the Shoreline store Dockside Cannabis in January. These robberies are becoming more frequent, more brazen, and more aggressive. 

There have been three deaths associated with these robberies in recent days. On March 16, another CCC member, Green Theory in Bellevue, was robbed. The attacker engaged in a shootout with police before he was killed. On March 17, Euphorium in Covington was held at gunpoint and store security shot and killed the robber during the incident. We should not be in a climate where stores must hire armed guards to literally shoot it out with criminals. 

There is no official data on cannabis store robberies, but our tracking of them shows at least 77 armed robberies of cannabis stores since the beginning of the year – nearly one per day (and our list is incomplete). The frequency of these robberies is escalating. 

During the legislative session, the CCC pursued legislation that would enhance penalties for violent robberies of cannabis retailers. It passed the Senate unanimously but was dismissed in the House of Representatives. We know that laws alone will not stop all behavior, but this could have been a small and important step to deter these crimes. One of the main points that we conveyed to legislators is that the terror and helplessness victims of armed robbery suffer is a lifelong trauma that should be at the front and center of these conversations. We ask that legislators step up and pass the enhanced sentencing legislation, Senate Bill 5927, sponsored by Senators Honeyford and Saldaña, at the earliest opportunity.

Some of our member stores are hiring armed guards. Some are reducing operating hours to minimize risk. We are taking what steps we can to keep everyone safe, but without broader support, many stores are facing the possibility of closing because they cannot afford the increased security measures, which can be up to 50 percent of store revenue, not to mention the revenue loss from these robberies. Employees across this state are petrified of the continuing violence, and hiring has become increasingly difficult. We need help and we need it now.

To begin with, we ask that more resources, more attention, and more effort be put into combating these dangerous robberies before they happen. We deeply appreciate recent law enforcement efforts, but there needs to be an increase in law enforcement presence in the vicinity of shops, and in investigative resources devoted to apprehending the perpetrators of these crimes. 

Second, the industry struggles with the burden of federal prohibition and lack of access to traditional banking. In large part, the violence surging through cannabis retail stores is due to the nature of the cash-only business. Cannabis retail stores need access to debit and credit cards, tax relief for funding heightened security, and further protections in the law to ensure employees and customers are safe. We appreciate the efforts of Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck and State Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti working at the federal level to get the U.S. Senate to pass the SAFE Banking Act. Federal inaction contributes to this violence.

Cannabis retail small business owners are making a plea for help from lawmakers, elected officials at the state, regional and local levels, law enforcement authorities, and the community at large. Please do not ignore or minimize this problem. Please do not lose focus on the threat this poses to the industry and our communities. Please take this seriously. Please help us. 

Adan Espino Jr. is the Executive Director of the Craft Cannabis Coalition, an advocacy group representing more than 50 Washington-based small and family-owned cannabis retailers statewide. Maryam Mirnateghi is the CEO of Canna West Seattle, a cannabis retail store in West Seattle. 

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