WA Senate LAW - Committee Meeting
(January 31, 2022) - SB 5927 - Public Hearing

SB 5927 - Cannabis Retail Robberies

With increasing incidents of cannabis retail robbery, legislation adding reporting requirements and sentencing enhancements was seen as helpful, but some argued it sidestepped bigger issues.

Here are some observations from the Monday January 31st Washington State Senate Law and Justice Committee (WA Senate LAW) Committee Meeting.

My top 3 takeaways:

  • 16 people supported the bill, with six speaking to the need to deter further robberies at the cash-only businesses for the sake of retail employees and the public.
    • Senator Jim Honeyford, the measure’s primary sponsor, said he was backing the bill despite a personal vow “that I don't vote for any marijuana bills, but this one is a little different" (audio - 1m, video).
      • Honeyford quoted infamous bank robber Willie Sutton (“who denied the answer” attributed to him) about targeting banks because “that’s where the money is.” Retailers were a target “because they have to deal in cash due to federal banking rules,” Honeyford stated, meaning “that’s where the money is.” He believed the incidents would “continue unless we take action,” and was especially concerned about a “fatal result” from a robbery.
      • Senator Keith Wagoner asked for Honeyford’s feelings on an “enhancement for use of a deadly weapon, specifically firearms,” asking if the situation was sufficiently covered in “existing law, or if there’s room in your bill to stiffen things if you use a firearm.” Honeyford believed there was “room to stiffen it” (audio - 1m, video).
    • Chris Thompson, WSLCB Director of Legislative Affairs (audio - 1m, video
      • Thompson conceded that although his agency was the lead regulator of retail stores “we don't have super good data on the incidences," but "it does appear like this problematic activity is on the rise." WSLCB leaders supported the bill on the view it made “improvements in terms of both public safety and officer safety.”
    • Mark Johnson, ​​Washington Retail Association Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs (audio - 2m, video)
    • James Adams, Mr. Greens Budtender and UFCW 21 Member (audio - 1m, video
      • Adams felt that retail cannabis crimes often “don’t really get reported to the media.” He had been notified by local police of robberies near him in addition to hearing about other incidents from friends. Adams appreciated how the bill would address a “big problem” that was affecting those in the cannabis industry.
    • Vicki Christophersen, WACA Executive Director and Lobbyist (audio - 1m, video
      • Christophersen called the legislation “one piece of a robust strategy" state officials “should employ to deal with this issue.” Though crimes were “predominantly” at retailers, she noted transportation licensees as well as producer/processors had also been victims of crime. Christophersen expected this would continue as long as “there is a lot of cash” in the cannabis sector, pointing to the 2017 death of a retail employee “who was kidnapped as part of a robbery and ultimately lost his life.” She called the bill “one piece of a total strategy that could work to thwart these thieves.”
        • Christophersen supported SB 5781 which would expand the definition of organized retail theft. Additionally, SB 5944 would establish “an organized retail theft task force.
      • Ranking Member Mike Padden asked about federal activity that might mitigate the need for retailers to be “cash-only” businesses. Christophersen mentioned the SAFE Banking Act, saying it passed the U.S. House of Representatives multiple times but needed action by the U.S. Senate, where, “we have the votes, we just sure would like the leadership to bring it up for a vote” (audio - 1m, video).
      • Padden then inquired about Washington state credit unions providing cannabis financial services. Christophersen responded that retailers “still have to collect that cash at the retail store," meaning credit union involvement "doesn't solve the entire problem" (audio - 1m, video).
    • Adán Espino, Craft Cannabis Coalition (CCC) Executive Director (audio - 2m, video
      • Noting that CCC represented cannabis retailers, Espino said his organization had identified “over 35 robberies at cannabis retail stores since January 1st…more than one a night.” Claiming some retail locations had “more cash than banks do,” he noted that staff were "also unarmed." Espino said that some licensees wished to testify but were “fearful of identifying themselves.”
        • RCW 9.41.300(1)(d) prohibits firearms from the “portion of an establishment classified by the state liquor and cannabis board as off-limits to persons under 21 years of age,” which is the entirety of a cannabis retail establishment. However, section (11) specifies that “(1)(d) of this section does not apply to the proprietor of the premises or his or her employees while engaged in their employment,” meaning cannabis licensees or their staff could possess firearms on the premises. 
    • Shea Hynes, Lux Pot Shop Co-Owner (audio - 2m, video
      • Hynes explained he’d been involved in cannabis retail “since the medical days in 2001” and while he and his employees had never been victims of a robbery “until recently, we’ve had three armed robberies over the course of the last three weeks.” He cited Uncle Ike’s spreadsheet of robberies in arguing the offenses were “skyrocketing at alarming rates over the last six months” to “one a day” in the state.
      • “This is not just a policing issue…this is a people problem," Hynes asserted, noting the incidents traumatized his staff. He compared the legislation with a statute adopted to respond to pharmacy robberies, saying both establishments sold a “controlled substance.” With cannabis stores providing significant tax revenue, Hynes commented that retail licensees like him wanted “the state to provide some help to this important issue.”
    • Signed in but not testifying (10):
  • Four people signed in as ‘con’ and ‘other’ on the legislation, expressing concerns the robberies were symptomatic of industry challenges that wouldn’t be fixed by reporting and sentencing requirements.
    • John Worthington (audio - 3m, video
      • Opposed to SB 5927, Worthington called the proposal “evidence of the huge regulatory problem we have" at WSLCB where agency actions kept “old players in the game.” He alleged that a “market glut” had resulted in “a lot” of retail robberies which, “like in the medical marijuana industry, end up kind of being inside jobs.”
      • Worthington questioned the support of Senator Honeyford who “admits he doesn’t really want” better cannabis policies. He added that expanding the law enforcement role and sanctions in legal cannabis crimes was contrary to the will of voters who were “tired of doing that.”
    • Caitlein Ryan, The Cannabis Alliance Interim Executive Director (audio - 3m, video
      • Ryan explained she arrived at a position of ‘other’ on the legislation after “soul-searching and conversation” among association members who recognized the bill was responding to a “material, and painful, and immediate” issue. She felt the bill was evidence that industry concerns were being heard “as armed robberies continue to escalate,” pointing to a member business, Dockside Cannabis, where a “tragic and brutal attack” left an employee “fighting for their life.”
      • Ryan relayed that her hesitation over SB 5927 was due to a worry it would not lead to an “impactful change other than possibly putting more people in jail with slightly longer sentences.” Being of the opinion that people desperate enough to rob a retailer wouldn’t consider “or even be aware of the nuances of sentencing law,” she also felt there was evidence of a “disproportionate application of sentencing enhancements given to Black and Brown people. We fear this may only serve as another tool for furthering an already inequitable and catastrophic incarceration endemic in America.”
      • Instead, Ryan advised pursuing “practical approaches to the root problem before contributing to the overwhelmingly high percentage of Americans in prison.” She asked for legislators to “lead a coordinated effort to push on the federal government to once and for all give our business access to credit card processing” thereby diminishing “cash-on-hand” and reducing incentive “for this type of violence.” Ryan also favored “the proposed state bank” as another way of tackling the issue, asking committee members to consider an alternative to “truly help our industry reduce the terrible violence we are facing.”
    • Neil Beaver, Washington Defenders Association and Washington Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (WACDL) Contract Lobbyist, signed in opposed to the bill and Lara Kaminsky, The Cannabis Alliance Government Affairs Liaison, signed in as ‘other.’

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