Cannabis retailers in Washington are disproportionally victimized by armed robbery and vandalism compared to other retail establishments in the state. The industry was hit particularly hard during the COVID-19 pandemic while still generating tax revenues just shy of $600 million dollars in 2021 alone, according to the Washington State Treasurer.
Cannabis dispensaries make attractive targets for robbery because of federal cannabis prohibition, which precludes a cannabis retailer from access to secure electronic point-of-sale services and merchant processing. A cannabis dispensary is, put simply, a cash-rich environment. Cannabis retailers across the state have demanded action from legislators to protect these retail locations.
In response, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board suggested a slew of safety measures, such as hiring armed security guards, making frequent bank drops, posting signs stating that the staff can’t access much cash and implementing safety guidelines so employees are prepared in the event of a robbery.
None of these suggestions will solve the root cause of this issue and will impose further costs on retailers who are already stretched to the max.
Cannabis retailers have recognized the need for and hired armed security guards to protect their dispensaries long before this suggestion was made. There are even companies that have made private security services for the cannabis sector their entire business model. While we support the proliferation of auxiliary services in the cannabis industry, we also recognize the increased cost this adds on to the retailer’s bottom line, which ultimately gets passed on to the consumer.
Making frequent bank drops is also costly, as armored vehicle transport services are one of the only safe and reliable ways to transport cash. Transporting smaller amounts of cash more frequently is expensive, and choosing not to use armed transportation is dangerous.
The suggestion that cannabis retail establishments combat this rise in targeted crime by training their staff to be better equipped to handle robberies and posting visible “no cash on hand” signs is disappointing, particularly coming from the agency in charge of and funded entirely by revenue from liquor and cannabis sales. The cannabis industry raises more than twice the revenue for the state as alcohol and yet many cannabis retailers are barely making their rent, and some are digging into savings or taking on outside investment to stay afloat.
This industry deserves a more robust, comprehensive and proactive response.
This begs the valid question of what this response should look like. Washington lawmakers certainly have no power to change federal marijuana law. However, the LCB could publicly recognize the extent of this problem and open channels of communication with law enforcement for the purpose of consistent reporting and maintaining comprehensive data on these incidents and cooperate to prosecute these crimes. As it stands right now, police who respond to thefts at dispensaries are not required to report them to the LCB. This might lead the LCB to underestimate the extent of this problem.
Raising the profile of law enforcement awareness and prosecution of these crimes, and making it public knowledge that thefts are a higher law enforcement priority, could appease retail business owners and deter would-be criminals. At the very least, the LCB could keep consistent data on dispensary robbery and theft, a task which has been largely left to state trade organizations to monitor and publicize.
Enhanced law enforcement response and cooperation with the LCB could help stem the tide of these robberies until federal laws change and merchant processors expand their services to cannabis retailers.
Kamran Farkhondepay Aryah builds compliance solutions for companies of all sizes in the emerging federally legal hemp market and the recreational marijuana markets. Aryah also contributes to cannabis activism and the body of literature within the cannabis industry by speaking on panels and writing for the Cultiva legal blog and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.