Rash of robberies has Washington state’s cash-only cannabis industry on edge

Image of an armed robbery at a Washington state marijuana store

A still from video footage of an armed robbery at Uncle Ike's marijuana store in Lake City, Washington, on Nov. 18, 2021. (Image courtesy of Seattle Police Department)

Pistol-whipped employees. Ceilings shot full of bullet holes. Safes and registers cleaned out at gunpoint.

More than 30 robberies of cannabis companies in a one-month span.

Cannabis companies in Washington state are reporting an increase in armed robberies, forcing business owners to spend more money to safeguard their stores.

Industry executives are rattled by the spate of robberies, in which thieves are targeting the cash-only businesses while other common targets such as banks and convenience stores have less hard currency in the till.

“This crime wave is insane,” said Ian Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike’s, a Seattle-based cannabis retailer.

“We’re the only businesses now that have cash. Smaller stores are absolute sitting ducks right now.”

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) is calling on Congress to act on banking solutions for the industry.

“The root of the problem is that retailers are a cash-only business because Congress has not acted to allow credit and debit card transactions,” LCB spokesperson Brian Smith wrote in an email to MJBizDaily.

“We urge Congress to address this public safety and common sense issue.”

The U.S. House recently passed a technology innovation bill called the America COMPETES Act that includes the SAFE Banking Act.

SAFE Banking would allow financial institutions to serve cannabis businesses without fear of federal reprisal.

In a memo to licensed marijuana business owners in the state, the LCB said that “while robberies are not exclusive to cannabis retailers, there are inherent risks cash-only businesses have that can make them targets.”

At the same time, the Washington state Senate has passed legislation, SB 5927, that would make the penalty for robbing a marijuana store the same as for a pharmacy robbery by adding a year to the prison sentence for first- or second-degree robbery.

The measure is now before the state House of Representatives.

Tracking the robberies

To help track the number of armed robberies happening across the state, Eisenberg has created a public spreadsheet with the date and time of the robbery and any other relevant details.

While not all the robberies have been verified, the spreadsheet does note when the incident appears in news reports, was confirmed via police scanner or in speaking with the business owner.

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A total of 154 robberies are listed since 2017 and nearly 50 since the start of 2022.

Last November, Eisenberg’s store in Lake City was robbed at gunpoint by three suspects.

According to the Seattle Police Department report, the suspects stole more than $7,000 worth of marijuana and product.

One suspect hit a customer in the head and held him captive on the floor with a gun to his neck during the robbery, the report noted.

Eisenberg said employing armed security guards at all his stores is eating up his profits.

The store owner estimates he spent around $350,000-$400,000 in third-party security last year and anticipates he’ll spend three times that much this year.

“It’s a massive expense,” he said.

Worker safety

In its memo to marijuana companies in the state, the LCB suggests a number of ways to increase safety, including:

  • Developing and reviewing a safety plan that employees are familiar with.
  • Using drop safes and corresponding signage noting that employees cannot open the safes.
  • Keeping minimal cash in the register.
  • Posting signs that say video cameras are in use.
  • Displaying empty product packaging and keeping the real merchandise in a vault behind a secure window.

“Worker safety is front of mind right now,” said Aaron Pickus, a spokesperson for the Washington CannaBusiness Association.

That’s why federal banking reform for cannabis companies is so important, he added.

“This is a public-safety concern,” Pickus said.

Bart Schaneman can be reached at bart.schaneman@mjbizdaily.com.