“You hit a 7-Eleven, you’ll get 20 bucks. You hit a dispensary, you’ll get $300,000 on a good day,” says Denver’s District Attorney, Mitch Morrissey. “It’s only a matter of time before someone gets shot.”
One of the primary talking points we use in lobbying for the legalization of marijuana is ending the violence inherent in the black market, but thanks to the federal government’s refusal to allow legal marijuana businesses to utilize banking services, legal pot shops in Colorado are increasingly becoming attractive targets to violent thieves, lured by piles of cash and primo buds. Denver’s Police Department estimated 17% of marijuana businesses had been robbed in 2009. For 2010 and 2011, 325 licensed marijuana businesses reported 317 burglaries and robberies -- a rate of just under 50%.
NBC News reports on thieves using bear mace to incapacitate dispensary employees in Colorado while ransacking the business. Other robberies have included masked gunmen, kidnapping budtenders as human shields, and as Michael Elliott of the Marijuana Industry Group notes, a case in California where a dispensary owner was kidnapped, tortured with a blow torch and bleach, and then the criminals cut off his penis trying to get him to reveal where he kept his cash.
Though the Department of Justice said that it and Treasury will be working out some guidelines to allow banks to work with marijuana businesses, many financial experts believe that won’t be enough. Politico reported that Rob Rowe, senior counsel at the American Bankers Association, wasn’t sanguine on the idea that a mere memo of guidance would satisfy risk-averse banks who fear the next administration or even a rogue prosecutor might just ignore the memo. “From my conversations with bankers, I don’t see that there’s anything they can do that’s going to give a bank the comfort they need until Congress changes the law.”
Representatives Ed Perlmutter of Colorado and Denny Heck of Washington have proposed a bill that would exempt banks from money-laundering charges if they work with state-legal marijuana businesses. It hasn’t seen much movement in the House and until then, marijuana businesses are amping up their security to deal with the threat of theft and robbery. Pot shops are outfitting their counters with bulletproof glass, installing sunken floor-bolted safes and hiring lots of security guards. Security firms run by ex-military Special Ops troops authorized to use deadly force are charging $5,000 to $15,000 a month to protect these cash-only businesses.
Further complicating matters is suspicion by some in the industry that the Drug Enforcement Administration is squeezing the few previously cooperative banks and credit unions into dropping services for marijuana businesses. “It’s like they’re trying to precipitate some sort of disaster,” says Norton Arbelaez of River Rock, one the largest Colorado dispensaries. “It’s like they think: ‘If we can precipitate some sort of public safety issue, maybe we can stop it.’”