Congress has been trying to soothe the cannabis industry's banking woes for years now, and its latest attempt—in the form of an amendment to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act—was just blocked by House Republicans.
Introduced by Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the amendment would have protected banks that work with the cannabis industry from federal sanctions. (The Senate Appropriations Committee recently passed a similar amendment.) While Heck and Perlmutter's amendment wasn't quite as comprehensive as their original cannabanking fix, the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015, it would have at least paved the way for basic banking services in the cannabis industry.
This isn't just a wonky economic issue. Like gun control, the other big issue that House Republicans are actively avoiding, the lack of banking services for cannabusinesses poses a threat to public safety.
Travis Mason, a security guard at an Aurora, Colorado cannabis dispensary, was gunned down last week during a robbery. He was a Marine veteran, devoted husband, and father of twin girls.
"They keep asking 'Where’s Daddy, Mommy?'" his widow, Samantha Mason, told Colorado's 9NEWS. "They’re like 'Why are you sad, Mommy? Is it because you miss Daddy? He’s just at work. He’ll be home soon.'"
Why are those two girls now fatherless? It's because, despite the fact that states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska have voted to legalize cannabis, cannabusinesses are still forced to operate in cash, due to federal restrictions preventing banks from accepting "drug money." (The federal government, however, has no problem accepting that drug money via the tax it levies on sales of Schedule I controlled substances, which it's been merrily collecting since day one of legalization.) Cannabusinesses have argued since the beginning of legalization that the cash economy puts them at risk of crime and violence, and they are clearly, painfully correct.
Nacho, a team leader with Apache Security, a veteran-operated Puget Sound cannabis security firm, told me that robberies in the industry are still common.
"This shit happens around the country, it's just that no one really gets killed," he said. "When they do, unfortunately, it makes the news. Dispensaries are getting whacked left and right." He also noted the tragic irony of putting unarmed security guards in charge of guarding large amounts of cash.
"At the moment it's a lot of funky rules," he said. "That's why a lot of security companies don't get into this industry. I've spoken to a lot of people in the industry and they're just flat-out scared. They've heard the stories of robberies at dispensaries. They've heard the stories of people getting murdered." Mason, he said, was likely a sitting duck.
"It's very sad that a veteran figured, 'Hey, I can make a living protecting this business,' and it came down to this," he said. "Right now in Washington state you really can't be armed at any of these locations. It's just unreal."
Brian Smith, communications director for the WSLCB, said the state doesn't have an official policy on guns at pot shops, but they are expressly forbidden by the Cole Memo, the federal Department of Justice's founding document for legal weed.
"We tell them that nothing in law prohibits them from having a firearm," said Smith. "However, we also show them that the federal Cole Memorandum prohibits them. Licensees have to sign an acknowledgement that they are aware."
Personally, I'm not a big fan of guns, but Nacho made a great point: The real problem isn't the presence or absence of guns, it's that people are robbing pot shops in the first place.
"Maybe they do see you as security and they're like, 'That's the first guy we take out,' armed or unarmed," said Nacho.
Of course, most shops have the majority of their cash and product locked away in enormous safes, so unless you're on some Ocean's Eleven shit, you're not getting away with much even if you do make it past security, but that hasn't done much to deter thieves. Making it easier for cannabusiness owners to put their money in banks would help change that. Also, the amendment would start the long overdue conversation on credit cards.
"[We'd] still need to pass the Marijuana Business Access to Banking Act for that to be possible on a widespread level," said Kati Rutherford, Heck's communications director, "but it's a step in that direction."
Just to be crystal clear here, this amendment would have helped reduce the threat of armed robbery at pot shops, and House Republicans blocked it the week after someone lost their life in an armed robbery at a pot shop. While that's not quite as morally repugnant as punting on gun control measures the week after Orlando, it's representative of the same shitty pattern of letting ideological squabbles take precedence over human life. As Heck so forcefully put it in a statement:
“Frankly, I’m frustrated by this terrible decision, and the American people should be, too. Our worst fears were realized last weekend with the tragic murder of a father and Marine during an armed robbery in Colorado. We are going backwards at a time when it is critical to public safety that we make progress. We’ve been pushing for this common sense change for more than three years now, received bipartisan support, passed the amendment by a wide margin, and now all the sudden this issue is labeled a ‘poison pill.’ As more states legalize adult recreational marijuana, Speaker Ryan and Rules Committee Chairman [Pete] Sessions cannot continue to ignore the dangers that all-cash operations invite. We need to get serious about this and make these changes now.”
And we need to do it before anyone else gets shot.