High stacks: Pot sellers getting rich in Colorado, but banks won't touch it
A bag of marijuana being prepared for sale sits next to a money jar at BotanaCare in Northglenn, Colorado in this file photo taken December 31, 2013. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking/Files)
DENVER — U.S. banks won't do business with newly legalized marijuana shops in Colorado, forcing pot sellers to stuff their safes with drug money that could be enticing to thieves.
Several marijuana shops in Colorado told QMI Agency that the bank freeze-out is creating serious security problems, even as business has flourished.
Retailers have sold $14 million worth of marijuana since legislators legalized the drug on Jan. 1.
Toni Fox, who owns the 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, has sold $500,000 of pot even though her shop was open just three days a week at the start of the year.
Since marijuana sales are still banned at the federal level, shop owners and growers can't open bank accounts or get loans. They've been running cash businesses, piling stacks of bills into safes.
"Even armoured trucks refuse to come get the money because they're protected by federal insurance companies," Fox told QMI.
"I have to ask my employees to transfer money in different cars at different times of the day, and take different paths so as not to attract thieves."
Fox said she lives in fear of being robbed.
"Many women own shops in this industry," she said. "We have to have security guards around the clock."
Matt Brown, whose travel agency My 420 Tours directs tourists to marijuana shops, says more money has created more problems.
"It's the biggest logistical problem right now," he said. "The shops accumulate piles of greenbacks and don't even have enough space in their vaults."
Even though Brown's company doesn't sell pot, Paypal recently closed his account because of his links to the industry.
The U.S. Treasury Department recently issued guidelines to banks, explaining that they're allowed to work with Colorado's marijuana companies. The directive hasn't changed anything.
"If you call the banks, it's still no," said Elan Nelson, who works for the Medicine Man shop and grow-op.
"This is a problem because it undermines public safety," Nelson added. "We're carrying a lot of money. We know that a tragedy will happen, and we just hope it won't be one of us."
They say the solution is for marijuana to be legalized across the United States.
"The federal government has to recognize that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol," said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.
In January, U.S. President Barack Obama told New Yorker magazine that although he views pot as "a bad habit and a vice ... I don't think smoking marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol." The president's remarks offered hope to marijuana advocates.
"His comments provoked a necessary dialogue," said Tvert.
---- --- -
Riding on green gold
Colorado raised $3.5 million in taxes from a single month's sale of marijuana.
The state expects to collect more than $40 million in pot-tax revenues by the end of the year.
The money will go to school construction and, ironically, youth pot-prevention programs.
According to figures from the Marijuana Enforcement Division, the state agency that regulates the new industry, Colorado has 181 pot shops and 234 cannabis plantations.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said marijuana sales could reach $610 million next year, according to USA Today.
The potential tax revenues could convince more states to follow suit. Alaska, New Hampshire and Rhode Island could be next to legalize marijuana, said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.
The state of Washington already allows recreational marijuana sales and the first pot shops in that state are expected to open this summer.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, several travel agencies specializing in cannabis tours have opened since January.
"I have seven limos visiting my shop every day and tourist buses on weekends," said Toni Fox, owner of the 3D Cannabis Center.
Rich Grant, a spokesman for Denver's tourism office, says that while pot is legal, smoking it in public is not.
"The problem is that there's no infrastructure for people to smoke like in Amsterdam," he said.
Matt Brown, whose My 420 Tours agency sends visitors to pot shops, calls legalized smoking areas "the last piece of the puzzle."
"For now, people can smoke at home, in rented buses and in some hotel rooms," he said.
--- ---- --
- Recently, a marijuana industry job fair attracted 1,240 people to Denver, and 40% of the applicants were from outside the state.
- The Denver Post reports that industrial marijuana-manufacturing facilities in the city occupy the equivalent of 78 football fields.
- The Denver Post says 15% of all impaired driving arrests in January were marijuana-related, though alcohol was the main cause.
Would you visit Colorado to purchase marijuana?