After a string of robberies, pot shops call for state's help

Three pot stores were broken into within the last week in the Puget Sound area -- the latest, happened Thursday morning in Tacoma.

Have a Heart’s Greenwood location in Seattle got robbed again on Friday. Now, it’s calling for lawmakers to do something. They want more help from the state to get out of being a cash-based business.

Robbers go for both cash and marijuana products. Shops say there would be a simple way to get rid of half the incentive - if they had access to banks and shoppers could just use their credit cards.

Right now, transactions with customers, paying vendors, and employees – it’s all still cash for pot shops.

“Would-be crooks and thieves view our shops and other shops as fish in a barrel,” said Marcelo Ramirez of Have a Heart.

Its Greenwood location was robbed Friday by three men who rammed their door down with a car and filled duffel bags full of products.

An attempted robbery happened at the Highway 7 Recreational Marijuana Store Thursday morning, and there was a burglary at Port Orchard’s Kitsap Cannabis Wednesday.

“It is on the rise for sure,” Ramirez said.

Have a Heart says it has five locations in the Seattle area. But among three of their stores, they’ve been robbed more than 10 times.

Their loss? About a quarter-million dollars. And with no liability insurance offered to the industry, the loss is all out of pocket.

“It’s kind of sad,” Ramirez said. “If this happened to a liquor store, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.

Pot stores say they have generated a lot of money for the state, but say they don’t feel like they have the support of lawmakers.

The state earned nearly $315 million dollars from a 37 percent excise tax on pot product sales in 2017. Marijuana shops also pay the 10 percent sales tax that goes to both the state and county.

Have a Heart says it’s contributing a great deal to Washington’s economy and it's time for the state to step up.

Ramirez says all the cash is an unnecessary risk. He wants something like a state-run credit union, an option that California lawmakers are looking into.

“There needs to be some sort of netting that helps us maintain a level of safety,” Ramirez said.

Lawmakers say they are trying.

State Senator Mark Mullet (D-WA District 5) chairs the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee for the Senate.

"My goal is to figure out how every retail marijuana shop or processing shop or growing shop has access to banking services," Mullet said. 
State legislators passed a bill last session that says Washington State won't go after any banks or credit unions for working with the legal cannabis industry. But he says with the Trump administration, taking that further is a challenge.

“Everything is really frustrating. It’s not safe for our communities and it’s not good for our tax base, and I don’t see anybody wining from having this business be predominately cash,” Mullet said.

The WA Liquor and Cannabis Board says its representatives just returned from a trip to D.C. to speak with congress about the many challenges of being a cash-based business. Mullet and the LCB say a big step toward making banking services available to pot shops would be getting marijuana reclassified, so it’s no longer a “Schedule 1” drug – currently the same category as heroin.

KIRO7 also reached out to U.S. Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA 10th District) who is on the House Financial Services Committee.

His office says Heck has been working for the past three sessions to get a “Safe Banking Act” passed, where banks would be exempt for working with legal pot shops. His office is hopeful there will be another chance to get that passed in 2019, and bring another level of safety for stores in the marijuana business.

The Seattle Police Department says its responded to four robberies/burglaries in the city so far this year, and there does seem to be an uptick – but it also points out there are more pot shops entering the market.

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