The process of walking into most Whatcom County cannabis dispensaries is fairly straightforward.
Even amid a pandemic, a customer enters freely through unlocked doors, pulls their mask down briefly to prove their face belongs to the one on an identification card, and then begins shopping.
But after more than 30 armed robberies — some violent — of Western Washington cannabis retailers since November 2021, visiting a dispensary may soon feel a little less friendly.
In Whatcom County, home to 30 retail cannabis locations, several armed robberies have occurred in that timespan, including the most recent on Feb. 5 at Cascade Herb Company, off Samish Way in Bellingham.
As of this writing, it’s unknown if the robberies are being committed by the same group of criminals, or if many are copycat acts inspired by one another. Law enforcement investigations are ongoing.
Regardless, the brazen crimes have local dispensary employees and owners — and the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board — continuing to rethink security for a cash-only business still stifled by banking regulations related to marijuana’s federal illegality, eight years after state retail shops opened their doors.
Get them out — quickly
Between 2019 and 2021, the Bellingham Police Department logged four robberies — those occurring during business hours — of marijuana retailers and processors. In addition, the department logged 21 marijuana-related burglaries — break-ins occurring during nonbusiness hours — between 2016 and 2021.
In early November 2021, 2020 Cannabis Solutions’ Iron Street location was robbed at gunpoint one night around 9 p.m. Both cash and product were taken from the store in a crime lasting less than 5 minutes, said Benjamin Peck, 2020’s director of operations, but no injuries occurred.
“The thing that we hammer home with our teams is ‘comply, comply, comply’,” Peck said. “Get them in and out of the store as quickly as you possibly can, and follow up from there. Everything else can be replaced, but the safety of the team members is not only my priority, but it’s the company’s priority as well. I want everybody to go home at the end of the night.”
Of course the hope is that security measures will deter criminals outright. There are three 2020 Cannabis locations in Whatcom County, and all of them feature 24/7 video surveillance of both interior and exterior spaces. One of 2020’s locations, Peck said, has 50 cameras. Thorough camera coverage is required by LCB regulations.
Cameras, panic buttons, more cameras
“Any portion of growing cannabis, selling cannabis, transporting cannabis — it’s all done under the watch of cameras,” he said. “The idea is to cover every inch of the store, if possible, and eliminate as many dead spaces as you possibly can.”
Prior to opening for the first time, Peck said LCB officers will visit a retail shop and check out their video system, working with employees to fine-tune things. In addition to an arsenal of lenses, 2020 and other dispensaries have alarm systems and — like the banks they can’t do traditional business with — panic buttons to summon police.
In the November 2021 robbery, Peck said an employee pressed the panic button, but suspects were gone by the time police showed up.
At the production level, security is ramped up even further. Jerry Nichols, a superintendent for the Saturn Group cannabis farm located directly off the Mount Baker Highway near Kendall, said their operation has 100 cameras split between their growing facility and warehouse. A full-time, on-site employee monitors the cameras, he added.
The large facility, now operating for close to two years, is virtually impossible to ignore for those driving by. Two roadside signs — warning of electric fences, armed patrols, video surveillance and even guard dogs — act as substantial deterrent.
A white SUV, windows tinted black, often sits facing the highway in front of the facility, and the security fencing surrounding growing canopies is tall, and topped with barbed wire. In addition, the farm uses high-tech security systems — which Nichols said is common at many grow facilities — that alert police immediately of break-ins or any unwanted intrusions, among other features.
The farm hasn’t had any attempted break-ins, Nichols said, though its two road signs were blasted with what appears to be birdshot from a shotgun about a year ago.
‘Not cheap, but worth it’
The LCB emailed a list of security suggestions to state cannabis licensees with retail businesses on Jan. 27.
These include recommended use of “drop safes” — which allow employees to make deposits without ever opening the safe — and signage explaining employees cannot open such safes. Other more substantial security suggestions include having an initial entry area separated by a security door that opens to a retail area, and the hiring of armed security.
After November’s stick-up, Peck said they’ve gone the latter route: a guard arrives outside their Iron Street store each night during their busy time, and remains there for hours.
“It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it,” he said. “When you get the bill at the end of the month, it’s a chunk of change. But it’s 100% worth it.”
Peck said 2020 can handle the extra expense — their Iron Street location brought in over $282,000 in gross sales in December alone, according to 502data.com — but expressed concern that smaller shops might feel more of a financial pinch to afford the same level of protection.
In some cases, anything short of armed guards doesn’t seem to be deterring those desperate enough for a score: While most dispensaries are hit around closing time, with criminals likely thinking large amounts of cash and few customers are inside, Cascade Herb was robbed in broad daylight on a Saturday morning.
Smile for the camera?
Although robberies are more dangerous and disruptive, businesses are also vulnerable to burglary. Lisa Weimer, manager of Bellingham’s Green Leaf dispensary, saw a 2016 overnight burglary leave the business with an appreciable amount of lost product. There have been no more break-ins since they added bars and locks to doors and windows. But that isn’t what she’s worried about anymore.
“I’m more worried about them walking in during business hours than anything else,” she said. “But we definitely have our precautions and … we definitely have the police right there on call if we need them. I’m hoping, for the safety of my employees, that people don’t [rob us].”
When robbers do get away, the mask-wearing of the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t leave retailers with detailed suspect descriptions to circulate to law enforcement and the community. Peck said that one idea, already used by several local retailers, is to require entering customers to remove masks outside and show full face to a video screen.
The knowledge of a full-face profile may dissuade some with ill intent, Peck said. And if it doesn’t, law enforcement has a better idea of who they’re looking for.
For an industry that often prides itself on friendly customer service and ease of transactions, the uptick in armed robberies creates dark thoughts in what’s typically considered a fun place, Peck said.
“It’s not something that you ever really want to think about, but there are serious consequences to this because we are a cash business due to banking regulations,” he said. “It is kind of a known thing: there’s cash on hand. So, it makes us targets.”
Green for green
When cannabis retailers first started taking in cash and setting some aside to pay Washington state taxes, LCB spokesperson Brian Smith said it led to some complications. Some retail employees were showing up at their Olympia offices with large bags of cash to square up on tax matters.
Since then, things aren’t quite as bad — most dispensaries can now have banking accounts for payroll and deposit purposes — but it’s still far from ideal, Smith said.
“We share the same concerns that the retailers do,” he said. “We believe that these are legitimate businesses in the state, and for public safety and common-sense reasons, they should have access to banking like everyone else.”
In the case of 2020 Cannabis, Peck said they’ve established a relationship with a regional credit union for business needs such as payroll. Still, handling large volumes of cash each day is fraught with danger; Peck said the goal is to transport cash out of a store as frequently as possible, usually via armored truck, so they’re both less of a target for robbery and subject to less of a loss as a result of one.
Using cryptocurrency as a digital workaround for debit card transactions is seen as an option in some stores, Peck said, but he’s unsure how prevalent the practice is. In these situations, a debit card is used to purchase what shows up digitally as cryptocurrency instead of a cannabis product. However, newer banking regulations on cryptocurrency may further dissuade its use.
Having to file federal tax paperwork on something that’s federally illegal, after all, is bound to be complicated, Peck said.
Obstacles to normalcy
Despite the lack of federal action so far, Smith said the LCB is hopeful that federal legalization of cannabis will occur in the next two to five years, finally allowing banking normalcy.
“There are so many obstacles to making this system work because it’s illegal at the federal level,” he said. “Washington has been able to thrive without the federal legalization, but we believe that in the not-so-distant future, Washington will be able to open up and they will have access to these types of banking services that other businesses enjoy.”
Peck is hopeful, too.
“If I can have somebody come in, and they can use their debit card to buy their weed instead of cash —like they would if they were going to go get a soda or a cup of coffee at the gas station — maybe it’ll change the dynamic,” he said. “There will still be the cash element of it. There’s still the desirability of the product that does have a street value on it. So, it’s never going to completely go away, but I think that’ll be a big step in the right direction: making this more of a normalized thing instead of something that stands out.”
Those banking hopes do little to prevent more robberies from occurring in the near term, however.
At recent LCB board meeting, Peck said, directors discussed potential legislation to increase penalties for robbing a cannabis store, making it similar to punishments for robbing a pharmacy. But outside of that, retailers are mostly on their own to stay safe.
Peck said almost every dispensary in town is likely reassessing store access and security. Some may establish pre-store entry spaces as the LCB recommended in its email, keeping people outside until they are buzzed into the store via magnetic locks.
Other states already have already standardized similar practices, as Peck saw when visiting Las Vegas last year: dispensaries had armed guards and required ID checks in partitioned areas before accessing retail areas.
If such practices do become commonplace here, it will likely help reduce robberies and keep both employees and customers safe. Whether customers will still feel welcome and at ease, however, remains to be seen.
“You want everybody to be safe but you’re also trying to run a business,” Peck said. “If you feel like you’re walking into a fortress or — especially considering we sell something that until very recently was illegal — a police station, it’s a weird vibe. It’s this balancing act that you need to do.”
— Reported by Matt Benoit
Also read: “Growth in local cannabis business amplifies challenges as well as revenues,” Salish Current, Dec. 16, 2021.
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