The images are terrifying, like something out of Hollywood. Masked robbers barging in with automatic weapons, pointing guns at employees and customers, demanding cash and then escaping into the night within minutes.
But these violent robberies are happening for real at cannabis shops around the country, including Seattle, a city not particularly known for being a hotbed of violence or crime.
“It does look like the type of robbery you would see in a movie,” says Seattle Police Department Robbery Unit Detective Ashley Fitzgerald. “I mean, it’s literally masked gunmen that are coming in and holding employees at gunpoint and demanding to go to the safe.”
Fitzgerald is the primary detective on the rash of robberies in the city and is a member of the FBI Taskforce, led by SPD, that is investigating these cases up and down Western Washington. She says there has been an increase in “takeover-style armed robberies” that include multiple people with guns, often in masks, gloves and hoodies, storming in and stealing cash.
Budtenders have even been shot, some multiple times and with life-threatening injuries. One store employee was even killed in March during a robbery in Tacoma.
“There’s been an increase in violence,” Fitzgerald says.
According to Fitzgerald, there were more than 80 robberies of cannabis businesses in 2021.
Uncle Ike’s owner Ian Eisenberg keeps a spreadsheet tracking robberies in the state. In the first three months of 2022, there have been more than 70, the vast majority of which are labeled “armed robbery.”
And while cannabis retailers have always been a target for smash-and-grabs and other robbery attempts, store owners and police all say things have changed in the past two years. These days, the criminals are heavily armed and seem less concerned about grabbing product and more interested in the cash that cannabis shops are forced to deal in due to federal banking laws.
“You’ve got cash and you’ve got drugs and that’s going to attract guns,” says Myles Kahn, owner of Buddy’s Cannabis, located in Renton, just south of Seattle. His shop has been hit twice in the past six months by robbers with semi-automatic weapons. “Desperate times create desperate actions.”
According to Fitzgerald, it’s just a modern take on an old standard.
“Dispensary robberies are the new bank robberies,” she says. “And I think folks need to start thinking about them in that way as far as security concerns go.”
Eisenberg, Khan and other owners in the Seattle area have done just that, taking measures to protect their stores and their employees. Eisenberg, for example, has begun putting GPS trackers in his cash and adjusted the hours at some stores, trying to close before peak crime activity begins as the clock creeps closer to midnight. Both men have hired armed security guards to act as a deterrent to criminals looking for easy money. It’s an additional cost that eats into revenues already hit with a 37% excise tax and onerous federal tax laws, but they say it’s a necessary one.
“We have to protect our employees,” Eisenberg says.
But Fitzgerald is less enthused about armed guards, questioning their effectiveness as deterrent and noting that they come with other liabilities and risks to the store owner. On March 17, in Covington, Washington, an alleged armed robber took a cannabis shop employee hostage and demanded they open the safe, before being shot and killed by the store’s armed security guard, according to local news reports.
Kahn says he was hesitant because he worries that armed security could encourage more guns, but says “you can’t be a sitting duck either.”
“We had to create a deterrent and a presence, not just a hurdle,” he says, adding that because of the size and design of his shop, adding other measures to slow criminals was not feasible.
Shy Sadis, who owns and consults for stores in The Joint retail chain, has decided to go the other way, with plans to retrofit all of his shops with “man traps” that limit access to one person at time who must show their face and their ID before being buzzed past a magnetic lock. He says it’s a throwback to his old medical days but now instead of ensuring compliance, they will prevent criminals from “bum-rushing” the employees.
“If they can’t get in, how are they going to rob you?” he says.
Sadis says he also beefed up his security, as well as added panic buttons behind the counter and has begun using GPS trackers in case robbers make off with cash or product. He says that his stores have strict policies about cash management and that he uses 1,200-pound safe that only he can access. He has also added cameras to his shops that notify him through his cell phone and allow him to actually talk to people he can see outside his buildings.
Fitzgerald says she wants owners to know that she and the taskforce are “taking this very seriously.” Several criminals have been brought to justice so far, including one that hit Kahn’s store and then posted photos of themselves on social media with the money and product they stole.
But everyone agrees that until cannabis shops are allowed to take debit and credit cards instead of just cash, they will remain attractive targets. In all likelihood, this will require a regulatory change at the federal level — something like the SAFE Banking Act, which has passed the U.S. House of Representatives multiple times, but has failed to gain any traction with the Senate.
In the meantime, Fitzgerald recommended several steps that owners could take to protect themselves and their employees. First and foremost, she says owners must have clear guidelines and training for employees in case of a robbery.
“And the most important thing for employees to do is to comply with demands, because we tell people that no amount of money or product is worth somebody getting injured or killed,” she says.
Beyond that she offers what she calls “basic, practical suggestions,” like ID scanners at the door, limiting the number of people allowed inside and ensuring that security cameras preserve video for the follow-up investigation. Time-release safes, like those that pharmacies use for opioids, and GPS trackers that relay real-time information to police are also helpful.
“If there’s a tracker in there, then that GPS information can be relayed to officers in real time and we can have a better chance at arresting them,” she says.
The value of the trackers was proven in March after three armed robbers hit a store in the city of Bellevue, prompting a police pursuit through several cities and resulting in one of the suspects being shot and killed by Seattle police. According to the Seattle Times, charging papers in the case indicate that police were aided in the pursuit by a tracker placed in the cash. The two other suspects in the case were arrested.
Fitzgerald also said that if owners have the money, a man trap is effective and says they should consider bulletproof glass and “bandit barriers,” like banks, even if it may put off customers at first.
“Like I said, they’re the new bank robberies,” she says. “So we should start treating it with the same level of urgency and thinking about it in that way.”