Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (“LCB”), Licensees, and Policymakers Met Yesterday to Discuss Dispensary Safety Following String of Deadly Robberies in Washington Marijuana Shops – Access to Banking, LCB-Sponsored Training, and Industry-Wide Collaboration Highlighted as Necessary Next Steps

March 30, 2022 — Following a tragic string of recent armed robberies at three Washington marijuana shops that resulted in the death of three people, the LCB met with marijuana retail licensees and policymakers yesterday to discuss the dire state of the industry and what actions can be taken to prevent such incidents in the future.

While Washington retail shops are no stranger to robberies, the recent escalation of violence and increase in frequency of these robberies is cause for great concern for an industry that is currently facing a myriad of struggles. The Washington CannaBusiness Association estimates that 75 robberies have occurred at the state’s marijuana retailers in 2022 alone. Licensees at yesterday’s roundtable confirmed that their employees are quitting in large numbers due to fear of unsafe working conditions, despite shop owners’ best efforts to maintain safe shops amidst the recent chain of robberies. Washington state Senator Karen Keiser declared the rash of robberies at marijuana shops a public safety issue and a dangerous workplace issue and licensees called on the LCB for assistance.

While many policymakers joined the roundtable discussion, the participants who offered the most valuable insight were the LCB licensees who participated in the discussion. Notably, all of the LCB licensees who participated in the call own shops that have experienced robbery attempts in the past few months. One of the licensees stated that at a single shop of his there have been four attempted break-ins in the past four months, two of which were successful, despite his ongoing efforts to curb these robberies such as hiring guards and shortening the shop’s hours of operation.

When speaking of the cost attributed to offering additional de-escalation training and increased safety measures, the licensees noted that if things continue as they are without support from the state and the LCB, shops will be forced to choose between the viability of their business and the safety of their employees. The licensees stressed the need for help from the state and the LCB to combat the recent surge of robberies.

So, what are the next steps and who can help?

The Need for Banking: Can SAFE Banking Solve the Problem?

For those who are unaware, state-legal marijuana businesses disproportionately fall victim to robberies largely due to the fact that the federal illegality of marijuana all but cuts off these business’ access to traditional banking. So, while your neighborhood corner store can run your credit card when you pop in to grab a six-pack and bank at a traditional bank, your neighborhood dispensary cannot do the same when you pop in to grab some flower. Because of the federal illegality of marijuana, traditional financial institutions are unwilling to transact with marijuana businesses. What does this mean for marijuana shops? They must operate as cash-only businesses, making them prime targets for robbery.

As you can imagine, many of yesterday’s speakers emphasized the need for marijuana businesses to have access to traditional banking services, thereby reducing the amount of cash on-hand at these businesses.

Policymakers and licensees alike urged Congress to pass the federal Safe Banking Act, while licensees also appealed to the state to offer a solution for marijuana businesses that would allow them to take payment via credit or debit card.

The federal SAFE Banking Act (“SAFE”), which was passed by the House in February as an amendment to the America COMPETES Act and is currently in the Senate, aims to ameliorate the banking issues marijuana licensees nationwide currently suffer by offering a safe harbor to banking institutions who provide banking services to state-legal marijuana companies. Previous iterations of the Safe Banking Act have passed the House several times but have never made their way through the Senate.

SAFE came up repeatedly in yesterday’s roundtable discussion as a necessary next step to combat these robberies, however, even if SAFE is passed, it may not solve the problem. Because of the conservative nature of most traditional banking institutions, just because they can bank with state-legal cannabis businesses, doesn’t mean they will. In yesterday’s meeting Michael Correia, the Director of Government Relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, stated that even if SAFE passes the Senate, so long as marijuana remains a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act, and the threat, however minor, of Department of Justice entanglement looms, traditional banking institutions are unlikely to race towards opening accounts or lending money to state-legal cannabis businesses.

Still, a safe harbor to all financial institutions that leads to cannabis banking by some is still preferable to cannabis banking by none.

Currently there are several high-profile congresspeople who openly oppose SAFE in favor of comprehensive marijuana reform (*coughs* Schumer*), however, if marijuana businesses must continue to operate as cash-only for the foreseeable future, the likelihood of these robberies slowing is unlikely. I for one cannot wait until we have federal marijuana legalization, however, taking incremental steps now to support marijuana licensees operating in state-legal markets is not in opposition of this goal and is all to quickly becoming a life or death matter for licensees and their employees.

Correia urged those who wish to bolster the licensees’ desire to pass SAFE to reach out to their congresspeople to co-sponsor or support the bill.

Licensees Ask LCB for Security, De-Escalation, and Safety Training and Best Practices

In addition to access to banking, the licensees requested that the LCB step in to help licensees and their employees by allocating resources to provide in-person security, de-escalation, and safety training; operating procedures; and best practices relating to security.

In response to the licensees’ request, LCB Chair, David Postman, gave his word that the LCB’s first action item following yesterday’s discussion is to put together and execute safety training for licensees and their employees.

One licensee emphasized the need for information now, asking the LCB not to wait until the solution is perfect to offer assistance to the industry. The licensee stated that while bureaucracy runs slowly, the licensees’ need for information is now. She asked that the LCB give the industry pieces of information as soon as they have them, rather than waiting until they have the “whole pie” to do so as the current situation demands immediacy.

The licensees emphasized that they feel alone in the fight to keep their businesses open and their employees safe, with one licensee describing the current struggle shops are facing with limited resources and assistance as “fighting this with two hands tied behind our back.”

Industry Collaboration

Last but not least, the licensees called upon themselves and their colleagues to work together. One licensee noted that due to the competitive nature of the industry, licensees traditionally tend to keep information to themselves. The licensee made a call to her fellow licensees to switch gears and work together to form a collaborative network wherein licensees can share information and solutions relating to quelling these robberies with one another.

What Can I Do Right Now?

Licensees looking to take steps to protect their business and employees now can take the following steps:

  • Reduce Cash on Hand
    • While the per-deposit fees charged by many cannabis credit units makes this one difficult, licensees should reduce cash on hand to the extent possible to disincentivize would-be thiefs.
  • Provide Training to Employees
    • Providing training to employees on how to handle robberies, including de-escalation training, can help save lives.
  • Create an Armed Robbery Policy
    • Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Ensure that you have the proper policies in place in case of the worst-case scenario.
  • Take Steps to Ameliorate Smash and Grabs (planters, door blockers, enhanced or double doors)

If you have questions about additional steps you can take to protect your business and employees or would like assistance putting together a robbery policy or employee training, please contact a cannabis attorney at Gleam Law.