Crime

Limited banking access puts marijuana businesses at risk for crime

As John Murphy worked to set up his marijuana producing and processing business, he ran into one major problem: banking.

One bank’s employees wouldn’t talk to him about marijuana inside the building — only in the parking lot. One offered him a checking account, but only if he was willing to pay $600 a month.

So he visited a credit union, where he was offered a checking account for $150 a month.

Finally, he found one that offered to treat High Supply like any other small business.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is a real business,” Murphy said. “This is not Cheech and Chong.”

Murphy said that with the industry’s limited access to banking, he worries about the safety of his employees, who will be delivering marijuana in return for cash and checks. He worries that working in a mostly cash industry will place a target on their backs.

He recounted his experiences late Tuesday to a panel of experts at Olympia City Hall. U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., moderated a discussion between the four-person panel: Thurston County Undersheriff Tim Braniff, Liquor and Cannabis Board Director Rick Garza, Cara Coon of the Cannabis Banking Coalition, and Mike Correia of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Heck said that the limited access to banking has become a public safety issue. He told the story of Travis Mason, a Colorado security guard who was shot during a marijuana store robbery in June.

“That is what happens when you subject a retail establishment to being conducted purely on a cash basis,” Heck said.

Garza said that in the past, lower-security medical marijuana dispensaries had mainly been targeted by thieves and robbers. But, now that those businesses are closed, officials believe criminals will target licensed producing, processing and retail businesses.

That’s a fear that law enforcement shares, Braniff said.

“Our mindset in the law enforcement community is, ‘When is this going to happen?’ ” Braniff said.

Banks are hesitant to enter the marijuana business because the product is illegal under federal law. With banks still emerging from the recession, many are hesitant to take on new risks, Coon said.

Because marijuana was only first legalized four years ago, there’s not enough history to make bankers feel comfortable, she said.

The best way to establish access to banking for marijuana businesses is to safeguard the practice through law, Correia said. For now, Congress has been hesitant to touch the subject — possibly because so few states are affected. And it’s hard to lobby for changes without drawing attention to the safety risks.

“We don’t want to advertise that our members are a cash-only business and put a bullseye on them,” Correia said.

But Correia said he believes Congress could change its mind after the election.

“The world could change,” Correia said. “In January, you could have nine more states that look like Colorado and Washington.

“That would be nine more states where members of Congress would care about this issue.”

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly

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