Amid a spike in armed robberies at cannabis shops that have resulted in at least three deaths, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) hosted a roundtable on Tuesday during which they discussed solutions at the state and federal levels.
Speakers included State Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti; Sen. Karen Keiser; Michael Correia, director of government affairs for the National Cannabis Industry Association; and LCB’s Enforcement and Education Division Director Chandra Brady. LCB Chair David Postman moderated the meeting and roundtable.
The discussion churned out suggestions for long-term and short-term remedies, as well as a number of calls for the passage of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Act, also known as the SAFE Banking Act, in Congress. The Act, which has strong bipartisan support, has seen more action in Congress than any other cannabis-related legislation, and it has become a frequent talking point alongside discussions about violence and theft at licensed cannabis shops. Many cannabis retailers remain primarily cash businesses because federal prohibition creates hurdles for banks wanting to work directly with cannabis businesses.
The SAFE Banking Act has attracted significant lobbying registrations, from major banks like Wells Fargo and HSBC to big insurance companies and counties and cities, among many others, as Cannabis Wire has closely reported.
Postman began the roundtable by giving an overview of the extent of recent violence in the state: at least 70 robberies so far this year, resulting in at least three deaths, he said.
“Business owners and their employees are fearful that they could be next,” Postman said.
Jenna Rodriguez, co-owner of Gypsy Greens in Olympia, said that the past year has been the “scariest.” Running a cannabis business during the pandemic was tough enough, but then “these armed robberies started happening,” Rodriguez said.
“Obviously everybody’s extremely on edge and it became not only like, if this could happen to us, it’s like, when is this going to happen to us? And it finally did about a month ago,” Rodriguez said. “It almost sounds ridiculous. I was extremely grateful for the way ours went because absolutely nobody got hurt, and that’s sad.”
Sen. Keiser, who represents a district that includes the suburbs south of Seattle, including SeaTac, Kent, Des Moines and Burien, said that the recent violence has created issues for both public health and the workplace.
“I think we are at an impasse and we need to move forward immediately,” Keiser said, suggesting that emergency rules be passed, including those that require two-door entry for additional security. Keiser also suggested standardized worker training.
“We don’t have any standards of training either for workplace protection or consumer protection by these workers. And many of them are being paid virtually minimum wage with tips, depending on tips for their workplace income,” Keiser said.
Keiser added that two years ago, she introduced Senate Bill 60-33, which would have required a report to the LCB of all cannabis-related robberies. Keiser said she fielded pushback from law enforcement, but Keiser felt lawmakers could “thread that needle” and overcome the opposition.
“It wasn’t something that the industry association or retail stores at the time wanted to hear about because they were concerned it would imply that it wasn’t a safe industry and that the workplaces and the retail stores were dangerous,” Keiser said. “Well, two years later, we know damn well it’s dangerous and I’m really unhappy.”
Keiser added that her bill stalled, along with another that would have handed down enhanced sentences for armed robberies of cannabis shops, similar to pharmacies. Keiser again suggested incremental policy solutions in the short-term.
“We cannot dither around any further and wait for Congress to act or wait for there to be collaboration in the industry because it hasn’t happened yet and people are dying and people are being terrified,” Keiser said.
State Treasurer Pellicciotti said that the issue over banking and cannabis is in the public eye because of the “horrific nature” of the robberies that have occurred recently.
“It is beyond any measure of anything that makes sense,” Pellicciotti said, that the cannabis retailers are forced to operate cash-heavy businesses. “We all recognize it is a major contributing factor for a lot of the violence that we’re seeing,” Pellicciotti said.
Pellicciotti added that he recently met in Washington, D.C. with fellow state treasurers from across the country to “highlight” the issues related to cannabis banking. And, as a member of the National Association of State Treasurers’ banking committee, Pellicciotti said he put cannabis banking up as a “primary issue” that the Association “needed to address.”
“I want to do everything that I can do as state treasurer to really engage on this issue and say, since Washington state was such a leader in creating the legalized regulated market for cannabis, I feel it’s Washington state’s role to be stepping forward and doing everything we can to really go to Congress and say enough congressional dithering up on this issue, and it’s time to find a path for this,” he said.
Correia, of NCIA, spoke about his frustrations about cannabis reform at the federal level, and the sometimes competing efforts around SAFE Banking and other cannabis bills. (Read Cannabis Wire’s recent deep dive into the cannabis bills in Congress.)
“I hate to say it,” Correia said. “There’s a narrative that is going on in D.C. right now between advocates and industry and national groups, and it is: incremental and comprehensive reform are mutually exclusive.”
Correia also specifically called out the Drug Policy Alliance, and U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Cory Booker, “friends in advocacy” who “feel like something like SAFE banking is only going to get the fat cat Wall Street bankers rich, and that only comprehensive cannabis reform will address the issues.”
And while NCIA supports comprehensive reform, Correia said, he works in “reality.”
“The votes aren’t there. I’ve been there long enough. I know the votes aren’t there. The votes are there for SAFE,” Correia said, adding that SAFE Banking has passed in the House six times. Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who announced that he will not run for office again, has made it a mission of sorts to advance SAFE Banking, most recently aiming to resurrect the Act in the America COMPETES Act.
Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee will hear the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act on Wednesday, with a full House vote expected by Friday. The MORE Act would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances, ending the federal criminalization of cannabis. It would also make a number of other justice-focused reforms.