WA retail cannabis theft spike worries pot stores


A customer smiles as he completes his purchase during the first day of recreational marijuana sales in Thurston County at 420 Carpenter east of Lacey on July 11, 2014.

Personnel file, 2014

The details are surprisingly similar. Armed robbers enter a jar shop, often near closing time, and hold employees and customers at gunpoint while cash and products are stolen. Then they take off.

Over the past month or so, according to the State Liquor and Cannabis Board, the Washington Cannabusiness Association, and law enforcement officials throughout the Puget Sound region, it’s a scenario that’s been unfolding with alarming regularity.

According to Cannabusiness Association spokesman Aaron Pickus, a running tally among member companies puts the number of robberies since mid-December at around 30. Many of those have been armed robberies, he said. -he declares.

“It could be higher,” Pickus said recently.

While Whatcom County law enforcement in Tumwater doesn’t keep a regional tally of pot shop thefts — and the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Commission has been given the list by the Cannabusiness Association, according to LCB spokesman Brian Smith – most told The News Tribune over the past week that the spike looks real.

“That’s definitely one of our concerns,” King County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Tim Meyer, who is the department’s major crimes unit, is currently investigating several recent armed robberies at licensed cannabis retailers. “Anecdotally, I would say yes, I think we are seeing an increase.”

The common denominator, according to Meyer and many industry professionals and law enforcement officials interviewed by The News Tribune: money — and lots of it. This is where the problem lies.

Nearly a decade after Washington voters legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana, the failure of Congress to pass legislation that would standardize banking for cannabis companies and allow them to accept traditional credit card payment – officially known as the SAFE Banking Act – effectively put a target on their backs. Overwhelmingly, the retail pot is a cash business.

“Certainly there is talk on the street that these dispensaries have quite a lot of money, and in some cases people are willing to risk their freedom to get it,” Meyer said. “It’s a concern of ours, and we really hope there will be systemic change that will allow us to step in and address this issue.”

“We have to take the money out of the business,” he added.

Pot shops on “high alert”

Of about a dozen cannabis outlets contacted by The News Tribune this week, Jennifer Strom was one of the few to respond – and the only one who wanted to be identified in writing.

The owner of Sweet Jane NW near Purdy, it may be because Storm’s business was untouched.

Strom has operated Sweet Jane NW since 2016. During that time, she was a victim of crime; in 2020, two people got away with his ATM.

Although Strom has not been the target of a serious crime since, she said she was well aware of rumors of a recent spike in armed robberies – even before Division Director Chandra Brady of the State Alcohol and Cannabis Council’s Enforcement and Education, has published a newsletter on the issue on Thursday.

“I would say everyone in our industry is on high alert,” Strom said, indicating that the safety of his 19 employees is his primary concern.

“Everyone is really compassionate in the industry, and they’re excited to be in it, but it’s like your worst nightmare,” Strom continued. “Everyone is really scared, and we’re all trying to look out for each other and step up our security where we can.”

According to Brady, the full scope of recent thefts is something the council is still trying to get a handle on. With so many companies, so many jurisdictions and so many ways to classify crimes, it’s difficult to get an accurate reading of the situation and the data, she said. It’s also unclear whether the problem is specific to western Washington, she said, or how often weapons have been implicated.

“We’re certainly hearing from our cannabis retail licensees that they’re seeing an increase, and we’re now seeing – from our own work – what appears to be an increase in that activity,” said Brady, whose the agency has regulatory authority over legal marijuana sales. “We are working to ensure that we can provide these licensees with options to improve safety at these locations and to ensure that our officers are prepared for some of these recommendations.”

Many local law enforcement agencies seem to be in the same boat.

In Thurston County – where Olympian Rolf Boone recently reported on recent armed robberies at cannabis stores — Tumwater Police Lt. Jennifer Kolb and Thurston County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Chris Packard said the area has seen an increase in retail cannabis thefts since December, but it’s unclear yet what to make of it or if the crimes are related.

Packard said the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department is currently investigating three thefts and is working to share information and assistance with law enforcement officials in Lacey and Tumwater working on their own active cases.

Up north, Snohomish County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Courtney O’Keefe gave a similar response, saying her department is “actively investigating four pot store robberies in the past few months.”

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Deb Slater said there were two recent crimes at a pottery store, a burglary and an armed robbery.

In Thurston County, law enforcement is trying to get the word out to local retailers, Packard said.

“We have a detective assigned to all three of our cases, and we also work side-by-side with Lacey and Tumwater on their theft cases. Agencies as far apart as Mountlake Terrace kind of work together to try to establish a correlation. I think we kind of take a regional approach,” Packard said.

Pierce County is one place where a recent increase in retail cannabis thefts has not been observed, according to law enforcement officials.

Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Darren Moss said the agency hasn’t responded to any such crimes so far this year, while Tacoma police spokesperson Wendy Haddow told the News Tribune, “We haven’t seen any upside, per se.”

Even so, Haddow confirmed that officers responded to an armed robbery in progress at Zips Cannabis on South 38th Street on Friday, January 21.

According to Haddow, two gunmen briefly entered Zips shortly before 10 p.m. and fled with an undisclosed amount of cash and marijuana. Responding officers were able to identify a suspicious vehicle leaving the scene and briefly pursued it, Haddow said, but were eventually called off.

Zips owners declined to discuss the incident, citing fear and safety concerns.

“A few responding officers followed a vehicle that was reported by people outside the scene before anyone came into contact with the company or the victims. They tracked the vehicle on I-5 southbound from a distance pending determination of probable cause. They were returned to the scene and never initiated a traffic stop,” Haddow said.

“There were two suspects and nine victims, 10 if you include the company itself,” Haddow added.

Public safety issue

Pickus, the spokesperson for the Cannabusiness Association, said several steps could be taken to help keep Washington pot retailers and their employees safe while reducing the likelihood of them being robbed. armed hand.

In the state capital of Olympia, Pickus said, the association supports legislation that would increase the penalty for pot shop robberies — making the penalty comparable to pharmacy robberies — and is also pushing for the creation of a law enforcement task force to focus specifically on the problem.

On the ground, Pickus also said the Cannabusiness Association helps spread information and best practices to local retailers, which often includes advice on security measures that can be taken, such as hiring armed guards.

Jacob Bradley is one such security guard. As the owner of Bradley Public Safety Group, Bradley said his company currently works with about 20 retail cannabis retailers in Western Washington, which accounts for about 50% of its business.

Discussing the spike in cannabis theft, Bradley – who also has a background in local law enforcement – said the most important thing he tries to point out to retailers is the obvious: money. and marijuana are not worth dying for.

“Thieves generally want two things: they want money and products, and they want to get in and out as quickly as possible,” Bradley said. “Don’t be a hero for property.”

More generally, Pickus acknowledged that security measures don’t go that far and that cannabis retailers’ enforced reliance on cash will likely continue to be a problem until federal lawmakers finally address it. .

Smith, along with the state Liquor and Cannabis Authority, agreed.

“Washington is ahead of many other states and is probably the national leader in access to banking services for these businesses. … However, you can’t get past the final hurdles, which allow these companies to allow typical credit card transactions,” Smith said.

“It makes sense to say this is a public safety issue that needs to be addressed at the federal level, and they need to do it quickly.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and underground news columnist for The News Tribune. A recipient of the McClatchy President’s Award, Driscoll lives in downtown Tacoma with his wife and three children. He is passionate about the City of Fate and strives to tell stories that otherwise would not be told.

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