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Cannabis legalization has been billed as a fix for dozens of issues, from reducing racist policing and over-incarceration to myriad medical benefits, thousands of new jobs, and a brand new stream of tax dollars for local and state coffers, it is often hard to see drawbacks of legalization. For dispensary owners across the country, though, running a legal weed shop comes with its own set of downsides – most notably a seemingly widespread rash of robberies targeting cash and product.

According to a new report from The New Tribune, Washington is the latest state to experience a trend in dispensary robberies, with Tacoma Police Department officers responding to a whopping five separate dispensary robberies in the span of seven days.

“There is disagreement on what the best path forward is for legalization of cannabis, but people are seeing the need for public safety and support this just as someone would if it was farmers markets getting targeted,” Washington CannaBusiness Association spokesperson Aaron Pickus told the Tribune. “Because of the spike, we’re looking at what we can do locally, because who knows when Congress will change and support this.”

In Washington, the robberies have typically happened the same way, with the assailants entering the store close to closing time and brandishing weapons, pushing their way into staff areas, and taking as much as they can. While some robbers take cannabis products, most are focused almost exclusively on leaving with as much cash as possible.

Because federal prohibition prohibits most banks from working with state-legal cannabis businesses, most dispensary sales in Washington – and across the country – are done in cash. Pickus said that nearly 90% of all sales are done in cash. With huge amounts of untraceable money on hand, dispensary owners say that banking issues are at the heart of the robbery issue.

“We do know that law enforcement is acting on this, and it will remain a concern for safety until things change,” Pickus said. “The spike is from many things. People have known about the flow of cash since it was legalized. Masks also make it easier for someone who has an intention of robbing your store to hide their face, which is likely a factor. Every incident is different. Whether you agree with cannabis legalization or not, this is a safety issue.”

Cannabis Dispensaries Are Reporting Frequent Robberies – What Can Be Done To Stop Them?

A few hundred miles down the pacific coast in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, a slew of late-night burglaries at dispensaries and warehouses are targeting massive amounts of wholesale and retail cannabis products, threatening to run some companies out of business altogether. In one instance from San Francisco in late 2021, security footage shows police officers arriving at the scene of an active burglary but refusing to stop, arrest, or interact with the robbers at all. That clear disrespect from law enforcement has left legal cannabis operators worried that they will simply be left out to dry while they are repeatedly taken advantage of.

“This one it really made me angry,” The owner of the business, Tariq Mizyed Alazraie, who said his business had been broken into five times, told the SF Chronicle. “It was only one car, it was three people, they had no weapons. But for the observer, if you watched what took place, you would think the police were in on it. It was just weird, it would make you angry when you watch it.”

Further down the California coast, an armored vehicle company that transports cash for cannabis companies is now involved in a lawsuit targeting law enforcement officers who they say routinely pulled the trucks over and seized the cash with no legal reasoning. 

Back in Washington, police say they are paying attention to the robberies, but that the presence of untraceable cash makes it hard to catch the suspects.

“It certainly is a concern of ours,” King County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Tim Meyer told the Tribune. “Certainly, the word is on the street that these dispensaries hold a fair bit of cash, and in some cases, folks are willing to risk their freedom to get it. It is a concern of ours, and we really are hopeful that there’s going to be a systemic change that’s going to let us get in there and fix that. We’ve got to get the cash out of the business.”

Despite years of trying, Congress has yet to pass the SAFE Banking Act that would remove the barriers blocking banks from doing business with legal weed companies, and until that disconnect is fixed – and until dispensaries are afforded the same law enforcement protection that other small businesses are given – it appears that the trend of dispensary robberies is still far from over.