Customers walking up to Ocean Greens on Seattle’s Aurora Avenue can’t miss it. Right next to the cannabis retailer’s hours of operation, a taped-up piece of paper reads, “We have no guns! We surrender! Do not shoot, do not kill us!”
Call it a sign of the times; a resigned response not only to an ongoing public safety problem but also federal inaction that continues to leave a multibillion-dollar industry vulnerable. Neither are acceptable and both have a body count.
Three people died last week in Washington cannabis-shop robberies. On Wednesday, a Bellevue robbery suspect was killed by Seattle police after a pursuit. The next day, an armed employee at a shop in Covington killed a man allegedly attempting to rob the store. On Saturday, a worker at Tacoma’s World of Weed was shot and killed.
“Everybody has a gun, and nobody cares about the law,” said Oltion Hyseni, Ocean Greens owner. “I blame the government. I’m 500 meters deep in water with no oxygen tank. What am I supposed to do here by myself?”
Hyseni, who said his store has been robbed about a dozen times in the last few years, is not surprised by the escalation in violence. It is not new for shop employees in the region to be accosted or assaulted. He recently has lost five employees to safety concerns, he said, and it takes police hours to respond to a robbery call.
Efforts to help curtail an increase in cannabis-store robberies failed at the Legislature this year. A bill to improve deterrence by aligning penalties with those for robbing a pharmacy passed the Senate but did not get a House vote, while a measure to create a statewide task force and coordinate a response did not make the final budget.
Senate Bill 5927 would have also required that robberies be reported to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, providing crucial data, as well as having the board consult with the Washington State Patrol to detect criminal patterns.
Local officials say they are working on much-needed improvements to response times, increased police presence and more active prosecutions, but the industry remains an easy target for would-be thieves. Marijuana is illegal at the federal level, which puts federally regulated banks at risk of doing business with anyone involved in cannabis production and sales.
“Thieves know we don’t have any banking. They know we are only cash,” Hyseni said.
A bill that would change that, the SAFE Banking Act, has passed the U.S. House six times with increasing bipartisan support but continues to stall in the Senate. The latest opposition comes from New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker, who vowed to block banking legislation to pass a wider marijuana legalization effort.
That proposal — also supported by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. — would expunge prior convictions, fund equity programs and give the Food and Drug Administration regulating authority.
Booker’s efforts are well intentioned but shortsighted. Such congressional dithering contributes to crime in our state.
Federal legalization will likely happen in the long run, but because of changing attitudes and mores, not because lawmakers held banking legislation hostage. In the meantime, forcing the $25 billion cannabis business to stick to cash will continue to have a direct impact on public safety.
No one should have to die over an obsolete federal law. Local policing efforts must respond to the challenge, but the Senate’s continued refusal to act will keep costing lives.