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Businesses, local officials seek help addressing rampant pot shop robbers in Washington state

The state said there have already been more than 50 pot shop robberies across Washington this year.

Business advocates, pot shop owners and local politicians are asking governments for help as the cannabis industry across Washington state has been hit hard by dozens of robberies, some of which have been deadly.

So far this year, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) said there have been more than 50 robberies at cannabis stories across the state. Many of these robberies have involved firearms, the board said.

Earlier this month, a robbery turned deadly when police said teens Marshon Jones and Montrell Harfield shot and killed 29-year-old Jordan Brown while robbing a Tacoma marijuana store.

On Tuesday, the LCB hosted a roundtable to discuss the spike in robberies. 

"The crisis is now," said Sara Eltinge, owner of four locations in Clark County, "My people are afraid, now.”

None of her stores have been robbed, but she fears it's only a matter of time.

Lawmakers and members of the Liquor and Cannabis Board learned some store owners have hired armed security guards, starting at $70 an hour.

"The folks that are able to afford for armed guards are getting them. The folks that cannot are bigger targets today than they were yesterday," said Dockside Cannabis founder Aaron Varney.

Following the discussion Liquor and Cannabis Board Chair David Postman said the state will take action “soon” to offer help to pot shop employees.

“We’re going to look at getting the security training for retailers that the LCB can help finance and organize. That’s at a minimum,” said Postman. 

He also said the LCB would look at offering counseling for employees suffering from robbery-related post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Postman said the governor’s office showed interest in supporting tax breaks to help retailers pay for security upgrades, but he said the owners made it clear the solution needs to come from Washington, D.C. 

“We need to demand Congress act on that,” said Postman, “We also have to assume they won’t, because they haven’t.” 

On Tuesday, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn released his proposal to create a Marijuana Safety Taskforce.

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The task force would focus not just on King County businesses but also on pot shops across the Puget Sound region, according to Dunn’s office.

Dunn proposed the new group would bring together the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), the King County Prosecutor’s Office, marijuana retailers and community members to identify resources needed to help law enforcement prevent these robberies.

The team would also look to increase cooperation across departments, help with data sharing and coordinate emphasis patrols. Dunn said the taskforce’s efforts could be supported by the $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue he said was removed from the KCSO 2021-22 budget.

“There is a perception that marijuana shops are easy targets because they are known to operate on an all-cash basis. This has resulted in very dangerous situations that have quickly escalated and have resulted in deaths,” Dunn said in a statement. “Like so many other areas of our criminal justice system, we need to be sending the message that this type of lawlessness will not be tolerated and give our law enforcement the support they need to apprehend those responsible."

RELATED: 'Keeps me awake at night': Seattle pot shop owners increase security after spike in robberies

The Washington CannaBusiness Association (WACA), a group of cannabis industry advocates, also points to the fact cannabis businesses are forced to be cash-only establishments as a reason they are targeted by criminals.

The WACA said Tuesday it was calling on the U.S. Senate to pass the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow federally regulated banks to serve legal marijuana businesses the same as other legal retail businesses.

“The legal cannabis industry is grappling with many critical conversations regarding social equity and inclusion in the regulated marketplace, conversations that our members broadly welcome. These efforts should not stand in the way of immediate worker safety. It is long past time for the United States Senate to pass SAFE Banking,” WACA Executive Director Vicki Christophersen said in a statement.

She singled out senators Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker and Ron Wyden, calling on them to lift their opposition to the bill and put it to a vote in the U.S. Senate.

According to the WACA, the cannabis industry employs more than 11,000 workers and supports more than 18,000 jobs. In 2020, marijuana businesses generated $660.8 million in state and local tax revenue for Washington state.