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After Surge Of Deadly Robberies At Marijuana Shops In Washington State, Officials Push For Federal Banking Reform

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Following a spate of deadly robberies targeting marijuana retailers in Washington State, officials are stepping up their push for federal cannabis banking reform—a topic that will be addressed at a roundtable next week involving regulators, lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders.

The state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) said that at least three people were killed within the span of four recent days at three different Washington cannabis retailers. But the issue isn’t unique to the state; crime and even some murders have occurred at legal marijuana shops in markets across the U.S., prompting advocates and lawmakers to demand federal reform to protect the industry and its workers from what they say are the dangers of working in a cash-driven industry where many businesses have difficulty obtaining bank accounts

LCB Chair David Postman will lead the virtual roundtable on Tuesday. Panelists will include State Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti (D), National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Michael Correia, state Sen. Karen Keiser (D) and other stakeholders.

“The tragic events of the last week and the escalation of armed robberies over the last several months have demonstrated the urgent need for Congress to act,” LCB said in a press release. “The lack of banking services has become a catalyst for a very real public safety crisis in Washington State. Due to their forced reliance on cash transactions, cannabis retailers have increasingly become targets for armed robbers.”

The video above shows two people entering a cannabis retailer in Bellevue earlier this month and allegedly stealing money and products with workers at gunpoint. The police department said in a statement that there was also a third suspect who drove the alleged robbers through Seattle. Following a pursuit, two suspects were taken into custody and a third was fatally shot, according to King County prosecutors.

“Thus far in 2022, reports show that there have been over 50 robberies of cannabis businesses, many of them armed, in Washington State. This surpasses the number of robberies in all of 2021,” LCB said. “The roundtable is an opportunity for state leaders, policy makers, regulators and law enforcement to hear directly from participating retailers as well as to share information that could help.”

The police bodycam footage above shows another perspective from the armed standoff between law enforcement and the suspects in the Bellevue robbery.

“These robberies are tragic but they’re also preventable,” Pellicciotti, the state treasurer, told KOMO News. “People rob where the cash is. If we get cash out of this industry there will be fewer robberies. These robberies are preventable and this is a common-sense approach to making our communities safer.”

The regulator-hosted roundtable will take place on March 29 and can be viewed online or listened to via phone.

At a recent National Association of State Treasurer (NAST) conference, Pellicciotti led a panel focused on cannabis banking reform and, specifically, the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act that’s being sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO).

That bill has passed the House in some form six times at this point, but it has yet to advance in the Senate under Republican or Democratic control. It’s been a point of significant frustration for the sponsor and advocates, who have repeatedly talked about the public safety consequences of isolating marijuana businesses from the federal financial system.

Correia, director of government relations for NCIA and a panelist on next week’s roundtable, told Marijuana Moment that the organization’s “number one priority continues to be for Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act without further delay.”

“The Senate’s inaction on banking has resulted in unnecessary and senseless violence and deaths in communities across the country, including in Washington State,” he said. “Every day that Senate leadership chooses to play politics rather than provide financial services to the cannabis industry and its employees continue to provide ample opportunity for criminals to prey on these compliant, legal businesses.”

Colorado Treasurer Dave Young also talked about the “huge danger” that his state’s marijuana market faces during an interview with Marijuana Moment this month.

“You’ve got large amounts of cash moving around. And so you’ve got robberies, you’ve got violence,” he said. “And even, my understanding is, there’s been murder in in the midst of that. Not doing something isn’t going to improve that situation.”

Perlmutter, for his part, is committed to getting something done before his retirement. He’s even made a point to talk about enacting the reform legislation during committee hearings on ostensibly unrelated or wider-ranging legislation, like at a recent House Rules Committee hearing.

At a recent event hosted by the American Bankers Association (ABA), the congressman said that he will “continue to be a real pest, and persistent in getting this done” before he leaves Congress.

Following the bipartisan House passage of the banking bill, Perlmutter said he naively expected it “to sail through the Senate, which is always a bad assumption, because nothing sails through the Senate.”

But he’s taken pains to build support, including from current Senate leadership that has insisted on enacting comprehensive legalization with firm equity provisions in place before advancing a bill viewed as friendly to the industry.

Despite recently saying that he’s “confident” that the Senate will take up his bill this session, the congressman recognized that while he’s supportive of revisions related to criminal justice reform, taxation, research and other issues, he knows that “as we expand this thing, then we start losing votes, particularly Republican votes and we got enough votes in the Senate to do it” as is.

Perlmutter also brought up the fact that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has addressed the federal-state marijuana banking conflict and “she wants to get this off her plate and get it done.”

Ahead of the ABA event, the financial group released a poll that it commissioned showing that a strong majority of Americans support freeing up banks to work with marijuana businesses without facing federal penalties.

Meanwhile, the number of banks that report working with marijuana businesses ticked up again near the end of 2021, according to recently released federal data.

It’s not clear if the increase is related to congressional moves to pass a bipartisan cannabis banking reform bill, but the figures from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) signal that financial institutions continue to feel more comfortable servicing businesses in state-legal markets.

Some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House, too. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue in December.

In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.

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