Legal Pot Shop Workers Face Added Dangers Due to Banking Issues

Liz Carey

Tacoma, WA ( – The latest in a string of violence toward legal pot shop employees has left one worker dead.

Officials say the nature of pot shops – as cash only businesses – are creating a dangerous trend in that state. Advocates say the solution lies in changing banking practices.

In Tacoma, Wash., World of Weed employee Jordan Brown, 29, was killed on March 19 during a robbery, police said. Witnesses said two cars pulled up to the shop, then took off. Brown was shot and killed during the robbery.

It was the third armed robbery in the Tacoma area in a week, officials said, with one in the Bellevue area on Wednesday and another in Covington.

The robberies are the latest in a string of more than 50 robberies at legal weed stores in the state, officials said.

On March 11, a pot shop in West Seattle was robbed at gunpoint. Officers said two or three armed suspects entered West Seattle marijuana store around 5:30 that evening brandishing weapons. Officials said it wasn’t clear how much the suspects took from the store, or whether they stole cash and/or merchandise before fleeing the scene in a car.

In February, two armed suspects entered Pot Zone in Parkland, Wash. The suspects struck a female employee in the face twice with their gun, then turned the weapon on a male employee and demanded they open the company’s safe.

Other states have seen similar incidents. In Phoenix, Ariz., a man attacked a marijuana dispensary employee with a machete after being denied entry. In December 2020, two teens shot and killed Michael Arthur, a 44-year-old “budtender” in Portland, Ore. That year, Oregon cannabis businesses saw between 95 and 100 burglaries, robberies and lootings in 10 months.

The problem, industry experts say, has to do with banking regulations.

Washington is one of 47 states to have legalized marijuana in one form or another. However, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration still considers marijuana to be a Schedule 1 Substance under the Controlled Substances Act, with “a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” While it may be legal in some states, it is still illegal on a federal level.

In 2014, the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) provided guidance for financial institutions on how to deal with cannabis-related businesses, but the guidance doesn’t provide immunity for financial institutions from prosecution. As a result, many financial organizations won’t do business with cannabis-related companies, leaving them without access to conventional banking and insurance services. Without that access, the industry relies on cash, putting customers, employees and the communities those businesses are in at risk.

Since January, cannabis-industry advocates in Washington have been pushing for legislative help. A bill that would have increased penalties for robbing a pot shop failed to pass the Washington legislature during the 2022 session.

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) said it has been communicating safety tips with cannabis retailers that include making frequent deposits so as much cash is not available and posting signs explaining that staff don’t have access to large amounts of cash.

Earlier this week, the LCB held a roundtable discussion about the spike in robberies. Some store owners said they 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 said during the discussion.

After the discussion LCB Chair David Postman said the state will take action “soon” to offer help.

“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 told K5 News. The board will also look at offering counseling for employees suffering from robbery-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Washington State Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti has been asking for federal action. He has urged Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Ed Purlmutter (D-Col), the SAFE Banking Act would prohibit federal regulators from taking punitive measures against financial institutions that provide services to legitimate and state licensed cannabis-related businesses.

“Most banks will not take money related to the cannabis industry. There are some Washington-only, Washington-based banks that do allow for some participation, but that still doesn’t include the national banks that provide credit card services and the range of loans and other programs that are available,” Pellicciotti told FOX 13 News.

The SAFE Banking Act has passed the U.S. House and is awaiting a vote in the hands of the U.S. Senate.

“Everyone in government needs to be doing everything they can to make their work environment safe for the cannabis retailers. Nobody should be going into any work environment dealing with these type of risks,” Pellicciotti said.

Members of the Cannabis Workers Coalition said changes to banking regulations would protect cannabis-industry employees. Budtenders, the coalition said, never know when someone may come in to rob a shop, or who that might be. Not having cash on hand would reduce the idea of dispensaries as targets, they said.

“One of the biggest issues dispensary owners face is the inability to operate as a cashless establishment,” the Cannabis Workers Coalition, a union representing cannabis-industry workers and employers, said on its blog. “The process for cannabis retail stores to open up a bank account is very arduous. The shops who find themselves able to accept card payments are but a select few. In most cases they’ve omitted the truth about the type of business they are in order to be accepted to use credit card machine services.”