Politics & Government

Rob a pot shop, serve more time. A bill in the state Legislature could make it happen

Armed men stormed into the Ponder marijuana shop in Seattle in September and made off with some money. A bill in the Washington Legislature would allow a judge to add a year of extra prison time for anyone convicted of robbing a pot shop.
Armed men stormed into the Ponder marijuana shop in Seattle in September and made off with some money. A bill in the Washington Legislature would allow a judge to add a year of extra prison time for anyone convicted of robbing a pot shop. max.wasserman@thenewstribune.com

It’s dark. The store is about to close. An employee hears something, looks past display cases filled with marijuana paraphernalia and spots a pistol being aimed at his or her head.

The robber’s face is concealed. The gun does the talking.

Where’s the money?

It’s a scene marijuana retailers across Washington state have become familiar with and why some are rallying behind a proposed bill in the state Legislature that could require people caught robbing pot shops to serve more prison time.

At least eight Washington marijuana retailers have been robbed at gunpoint in the past six months, most of them in the Puget Sound area. The crimes usually are committed by a group of armed men who enter the store before closing and steal items or demand money, according to police.

Sometimes, they resort to violence.

One pot-shop employee in Eastern Washington was found dead after being kidnapped during a shift in September. That same month an employee at a White Center store was shot in the shoulder during a robbery; two months later an employee at a Spokane shop also was shot during a robbery and survived.

“The criminal element inside Washington state that’s decided they don’t want to do nice things to make their money have identified pot shops as being an incredibly lucrative, completely unguarded target,” said state Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, who introduced the bill.

Under Irwin’s bill, judges would be allowed — but not required — to tack on a year more of prison time to the sentence of any person who robbed a marijuana retailer.

“The idea is to send a clear message: Find some place else because if you do it here you’re going to do more time,” Irwin said.

A slew of pot-shop owners have advocated for the measure, which was requested by the Cannabis Organization of Retail Establishments, a non-profit representing cannabis retailers in Washington, as a way to deter criminals from pillaging their safes and harming employees.

Some lawmakers are doubtful longer sentences would result in fewer armed robberies.

“What’s the justification for doing one-offs?” said state Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane. “I’d want to make sure that the results of this bill would eliminate robberies rather than being an extra penalty.”

Ormsby voted against a similar bill five years ago that increased prison sentences for robbing pharmacies. That bill, which later became law, was propelled by the same reasoning behind the current one — that fewer people would commit robberies if they had to serve more time if caught and convicted.

Whether the longer sentences have led to fewer pharmacy crimes has yet to be determined.

Some pot-shop owners think Ormsby and others who oppose the bill are off base.

“It’s a fallacy to say criminals don’t pay attention to statute. They do when they spend time in jail,” said Eric Gaston, owner of Evergreen Market pot shops in Renton and Auburn.

Gaston, two other marijuana retailers and Irwin believe a tangle of state and federal regulation that limits security and prevents marijuana retailers from accepting credit cards is exacerbating the robbery trend.

Marijuana, while legal in Washington, is illegal federally, meaning credit-card companies would be breaking the law if they allowed their services to be used in pot shops.

Guns, similarly, are not allowed inside because it would be considered trafficking under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

“It is not a normal industry compared to others, and I can’t tell you how many obstacles there have been because it’s a federal Schedule I controlled substance,” said Brian Smith, a spokesman for Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board. “That fact has stood in the way of so many things.”

As result of the overlapping regulation, marijuana retailers in Washington have become cash-heavy businesses with limited security.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm for someone to pick off some low-hanging fruit,” Gaston said.

Three robbers came to a similar conclusion last September when they stormed into Ponder, a marijuana store in Seattle, and demanded money from the employees before closing time.

Unable to open the store’s state-of-the-art safe and alerted by the deafening alarm, the bandits left the shop having stolen money an employee was going through prior to the robbery, according to Jordan Jones, the store’s operating manager.

Heightened security measures, not the promise of more prison time, is what Jones believes deters would-be robbers.

“Lobbying for an extra slap on the wrist is great, but most robbers, most criminals, don’t have the mindset of being caught,” Jones said.

The onus, Jones believes, lies on marijuana retailers to protect themselves in the absence of clear federal regulation.

Ponder has taken this to heart by implementing a security system on par with something out of a James Bond movie, including a security guard, ID scanner, several safes, a monitor tracking 50 different angles of the shop and a timed lock on the door that requires customers to buzz in after 5 p.m.

Other shops, according to Jones, have yet to increase their security, perpetuating the idea that marijuana retailers are easy targets.

“It creates this normality where this is an all-cash business, it’s open late... and they have absolutely no security,” Jones said. “And if that’s the norm for most shops, that’s going to be the norm thought for most robbers.”