Council approves Cannabis Safety Taskforce in King County to prevent pot shop robberies

KING COUNTY, Wash. — After approximately 70 pot shop robberies across Washington state since the start of 2022, according to the Washington CannaBusiness Association, and a wave of robberies in Pierce and King counties, legislation to create a Cannabis Safety Taskforce was passed by the King County Council on Tuesday.

Councilmembers Reagan Dunn and Jeanne Kohl-Welles sponsored the measure.

“A dedicated Cannabis Safety Taskforce will be able to focus on keeping our local communities safe from the pattern of armed robberies targeting cannabis stores and manufacturers across the region,” Dunn said. “This legislation sends a strong message that King County plans to hold those committing these crimes responsible for their actions. I could not be more proud of this bipartisan legislation and am grateful to my colleagues for their support.”

Dunn says he believes it’s the first task force of its kind in the country.

“It’s something that hasn’t been done yet,” Dunn said. “We can be the first right now,” he said.

One safety change the task force could bring is more law enforcement presence outside pot shops.

“We have to have deputies who are there regularly, adopt a store-type situation where a sheriff’s deputy could adopt a store, park out front, fill out a report, be there with a presence,” Dunn said.

The new measure also will improve tracking and communication between different law enforcement jurisdictions.

The Washington CannaBusiness Association (WACA) says it supports the creation of this new task force. The owner of Green Theory in Bellevue’s Factoria neighborhood says the new measure may be able to help with current security challenges.

“It’s a huge expense,” said Molly Honig, managing owner at Higher Leaf and Green Theory. “But there aren’t enough security companies that are trained to staff all the needs out there and many, many stores aren’t even able to hire the guards that they desire because there’s such a demand. That’s really a struggle,” she said. Green Theory was robbed in March during a high-profile incident where the suspects led police on a chase to Seattle. Police ended up shooting and killing one of the suspects during a shootout.

In April, Montrell D. Hatfield, 16, was arrested and later charged with killing a Tacoma pot shop employee after authorities said he had committed multiple marijuana dispensary robberies around Puget Sound.

Marshon D. Jones, 15, was also arrested in April by Seattle police in connection with the deadly robbery in Tacoma.

Jordan Brown was shot and killed on March 19 at the World of Weed on East Portland Avenue.

The council attributed the surge in robberies to the “publicity of cases” and the result of cannabis shops’ ability to only operate as all-cash businesses due to federal banking regulations.

More than 17 states have legalized the use of recreational pot and 37 allow for medical use, but it is still illegal under federal law.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, had said in April she would prioritize marijuana banking reform that would allow pot businesses access to financial services.

Those in the pot industry said Murray’s announcement was an important sign, as it would finally address banking issues.

“During and since my time in the state Legislature, I have been a staunch supporter of the legalization and regulation of the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis. However, the federal banking regulations that force businesses to operate as all-cash businesses have ended up endangering employees, customers and communities,” Kohl-Welles said.

The task force will consist of the King County Sheriff’s Office, the county prosecutor’s office, those in the cannabis industry and community members, who will identify resources to assist law enforcement in preventing robberies, expanding inter-jurisdictional relationships and coordinating emphasis patrols.

The legislation will also require an analysis of how nearly $4.6 million in cannabis tax revenue, which was cut from the Sheriff’s Office funding in the 2021-22 biennial budget, is being used. That report must be completed by Aug. 31, 2022, before the 2023-24 biennial budget is considered.

In March, Washington State Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti went to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act.

“My view is, come hell or high water, this needs to pass this year,” said Pellicciotti. “If we can get cash out of the system where we can move to a banking system, we can prevent these robberies from happening.”

Pellicciotti insists Congress holds the key to making the job of everyone in the cannabis business safer.