Rocky Mountain High Crimes: The Dangers Of “Legally” Selling Weed



It sounds like the plot of a classic action movie: “Robber gangs” hassling western state business owners, making off with huge piles of cash and merchandise. And yet the high stakes blockbuster unfolding today is exposing the “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” of trying to run a legitimate marijuana store. So before you decide to get into the business, you might need to ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do you?

This next great action movie all started in 2012 when two states, Colorado and Washington, became the first to legalize the sale and recreational use of marijuana at the state level. At the time, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper warned that the actual act of legalizing marijuana would be complicated, “so don’t break out the Cheetos or goldfish too quickly.” And he was right: the process took Colorado over a year to complete, finally allowing the first sale of recreational marijuana on January 1, 2014.

But even as the first 136 retail marijuana businesses in Colorado get off the ground, federal law is “harshing the buzz” of business owners and making it hard (and even dangerous) to legally sell pot.

The first thing to remember is that in this country (under the constitution), federal law is considered the “supreme law of the land.” This is another way of saying that in the U.S. any given state can legalize whatever it wants, but if the federal government says it’s still illegal, then it is—it doesn’t matter what the states legalize. And, sure enough, under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, <href=”#cntlsbb” >Tetrahydrocannabinols (a.k.a marijuana—hard to imagine why that isn’t its street name) is a Schedule 1 drug (like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy), meaning that according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” and possession of marijuana can earn someone up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

So herein lies the first complication for running a marijuana business—it’s still illegal under federal law. For the time being, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is permitting Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana within their borders but will still prosecute individuals who, among other things, distribute to minors, move marijuana to other states, etc.

Although the Justice Department is allowing Colorado and Washington to regulate their new marijuana industries, the minor detail of marijuana’s continued illegality still complicates these businesses’ day-to-day operations. As the New York Times reported last month, banks are refusing to work with marijuana shops due to fears that federal prosecutors would come after them for money laundering or aiding and abetting drug trafficking. Federal rules also prohibit banks from “taking money from criminal enterprises” (which, as discussed above, marijuana businesses still are under federal law).

Since the nation’s financial institutions are keeping their distance, marijuana retailers are forced to run all-cash businesses. This wouldn’t be as big of a problem except for the fact that armored car companies (who would traditionally transport large amounts of cash for businesses) are also reluctant to work with marijuana retailers.

Not good. The logical next thought is that if you can’t have an armored car transport your money, you should arm your employees that do it for you. But this presents yet another challenge. Remember when I said there were still things the federal government will prosecute within the Colorado and Washington marijuana industries? It turns out that one of those things is “the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana.” The pot—I mean plot—thickens.

So now marijuana retailers have to deal in all cash, can’t hire an armored car to transport their money, and presumably can’t own guns to protect their stores. As a result, it’s not exactly surprising that NBC News reported last week that “robber gangs” are “terrorizing” Colorado retail marijuana shops. These “High Crimes” (have to give NBC credit for the excellent pun) are making it dangerous for these new businesses to operate. As Denver’s District Attorney Mitch Morrissey told NBC, there is a serious monetary incentive for criminals: “You hit a 7-Eleven, you’ll get 20 bucks. You hit a dispensary, you’ll get $300,000 on a good day.”

As a result of these crimes, officials are already looking for ways to help business owners navigate their complex legal environment. The WSJ reported earlier this year that the justice department is working on guidelines for banks, but some have said that might not be enough to reassure banks. However, as long as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, there will likely be complications for the legal marijuana industry.

While retailers await more clarification, maybe it’s time to invest in a safe like the one at the Bellagio in Ocean’s 11. Although, maybe that’s not the best example.


About John Wilson

John Wilson is an analytical communications professional, with a passion for sifting through data for compelling stories and insights. John started his career on Capitol Hill and chased his love of data and communications out of politics and into opinion research and public relations. John graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the George Washington University where he studied political science and statistics. Beyond work, John loves the mountains and can be found skiing or hiking in both the Sierras and the Rockies.
Posted in: Business, Civil Rights, Criminal, Law, Society
  • HmmmSaysDavidHume

    It’s very easy to envision a new paradigm, where gangs lose market share, and knowing their competition is both handcuffed from gun possession as well as having no place to deposit money, nor to reduce cash by way of credit and debit card processing, starts taking ‘their’ money and product from the legal operators.

    What’s even more baffling is how lawmakers cannot see the obvious, that seizing the entire market and legitimizing once illegitimate activity will greatly reduce violent crime. The over-60, white haired, white skinned politicians in office all use the same tired refrain that usage will increase and kids will have more access, when in fact people who want to use cannabis already have ready access. For kids, it’s even easier: a quick text and they are hooked up.

    The question for every single person is why these old white men are ao hell bent on continuing the drug war, when forty years’ experience, 16 million arrests, and $1 TRILLION spent hasn’t changed one thing.

    Meanwhile, the gangs and cartels get richer by the day, as well as better armed, and are all too ready to wreak havoc on communities here and abroad.

    And this is not the definition of insanity?

  • Brian Kelly B Bizzle

    The “War on Marijuana” has been a complete and utter failure. It is the largest component of the broader yet equally unsuccessful “War on Drugs” that has cost our country over a trillion dollars.

    Instead of The United States wasting Billions upon Billions more of our tax dollars fighting a never ending “War on Marijuana”, lets generate Billions of dollars, and improve the deficit instead. It’s a no brainer.

    The Prohibition of Marijuana has also ruined the lives of many of our loved ones. In numbers greater than any other nation, our loved ones are being sent to jail and are being given permanent criminal records which ruin their chances of employment for the rest of their lives, and for what reason?

    Marijuana is much safer, and healthier to consume than alcohol. Yet do we lock people up for choosing to drink?

    Let’s end this hypocrisy now!

    The government should never attempt to legislate morality by creating victim-less “crimes” because it simply does not work and costs the taxpayers a fortune.

    Marijuana Legalization Nationwide is an inevitable reality that’s approaching much sooner than prohibitionists think and there is nothing they can do to stop it!

    Legalize Nationwide! Support Each and Every Marijuana Legalization Initiative!