Shooting of Guard Highlights Public Safety Danger of Cash Only Marijuana

Two suspects are still at large after an armed robbery resulted in the June 18 death of a security guard at Green Heart Marijuana Dispensary in Aurora. The Aurora Police Department and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are offering reward money to anyone who may have information.

That dispensaries in Colorado routinely have large amounts of cash on hand has long been argued as a critical public safety issue by advocates, industry workers and politicians. Marijuana is still outlawed as a Schedule I drug under federal law.

A cannabis shop nearby to Green Mountain, Euflora, also contributed $3,000 to the reward money to help identify and apprehend the suspects.

“We felt like it could have happened to us,” said one owner of Euflora, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “That day we closed one hour earlier than we were supposed to – but it could have been one of our guards or one of our employees.”

The slain guard, Travis Mason, 24, was the father of three young children and a veteran of  the United States Marines. Both he and his wife, Samantha, were interested in law enforcement careers.

Dispensaries in Colorado generally operate as cash only businesses due to federal banking regulations. Banks or credit card companies that do business with the state's legal marijuana industry can be charged with money laundering, among other violations.

“I continue to work on providing access to the banking system for legal and licensed marijuana businesses because it is a serious public safety concern for communities, businesses and constituents,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., in emailed comments to Rocky Mountain PBS News following the Aurora shooting.

Perlmutter has sponsored the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act, which he says would remove all civil and criminal barriers to banks and credits unions so they can provide financial services to state-approved marijuana businesses.

“The legislation will help to get cash off our streets which is a growing problem for more than half the states in our country,” Perlmutter said. Both of Colorado's U.S. senators, Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet, support the measure, as does Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The bill now has 36 co-sponsors, Perlmutter's office said, with bipartisan support. It’s one of many legislatives efforts related to the legal marijuana industry, though none have gained much traction over the last two years.

In the meantime, more and more dispensaries are turning toward security services to transport cash out of their dispensaries. In the first year of recreational marijuana operations, hundreds of bank accounts were cancelled under pressure from federal authorities.

Rocky Mountain PBS News went on an armored car ride-along with one of the security companies that sprang up in the wake of the closures.

The industry shows no signs of abating. Total state revenue from taxes, licenses and fees increased from $76 million in 2014 to $135 million in 2015, a jump of 77 percent in one year, according to a new state report issued in April.

Content originally published by Rocky Mountain PBS on June 21st, 2016. 

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