Stranger Danger: Cops Sting Pot Shops

Some customers enter legal weed shops with ill intentions.

Let’s say you’re a fledgling bed-tender working the counter at a legal marijuana dispensary. You’re earning more than minimum wage, maybe not enough to live in a place of your own, still it’s a cool job working for a cool entrepreneur, and you’re talking to cool people all day.

For instance, in steps this cool girl, clearly of legal age. She flits past the cool guard guy who checks IDs at the door, and she spots you spotting her. You drop your suave sativa strain knowledge on her, and she gives you cool eyes and a cool half-grin as you accept her cash and wrap her package. You think: This young lady just might be a cool addition to the cool girl dating pool.

You consider asking her for her number, but that’s not cool. You know why that’s not cool? It’s not cool because this young lady is 20 years old, and she’s working undercover for the local constabulary. She has just caught you in a hot sting.

The sting is not personal. It is simply a means to ensure that merchants comply with the law that weed is only for people 21 years and over.

Your minimum-wage-plus job comes with an occupational hazard that could cost you a stiff fine and perhaps even criminal charges.

A little word to the wise to anyone thinking of becoming a cannabis entrepreneur in Colorado, Oregon, Washington State, or anywhere else where the leaf soon might be legal: Play strictly by the rules, and don’t get stung. Never forget that police sting operations are a standard part of law-enforcement compliance testing.

As if by standard procedure, cops will send the most middle-aged looking 20-year-old humanity has ever known into an unsuspecting legal weed shop. The point is to determine if that emporium can be enticed to sell THC-infused wares without a proper ID check. If the clerk at the counter sells the product, the law has been broken, and justice will be exacted. Marijuana stores selling to underage police decoys risk heavy fines and losing their licenses.

The sting is not personal. It is simply a means to ensure that merchants comply with the law that weed is only for people 21 years and over.

Image via Jim Watson

More than 200 marijuana stores are licensed to do business in Colorado. The majority of these establishments are located in Denver. In 2014, the year recreational pot became legal in the Rocky Mountain State, police ran 16 underage sting operations and turned up zero violations. None of the 2014 decoys was able to purchase so much as a single bud.

In 2015, Colorado cops sent semi-adults into 30 stores. Seven of those stores— almost one out of four establishments —took the bait and were cited for selling marijuana to underage customers.

Jump a few states west to Washington. Back in May 2015, a sting operation caught four out of the 22 targeted pot stores selling marijuana to minors. The violations come at a price: Store employees who made the sales will be referred to prosecutors for potential criminal prosecution. Stores also face a potential 10-day suspension or $2,500 fine.

According to the Associated Press: Washington state’s liquor control board warned shops days before the sting that “If the counter clerk relies on the door person to check ID, and an illegal sale occurs, both employees are liable for the violation.”

Prosecutors say that Hurley demanded $20,000 cash from a marijuana shop owner in exchange for granting lenience in an audit.

Washington state Senator Ann River reacted to the sting results much like a parent whose child has brought home a B- report card: "We're always going to have the goal of 100 percent compliance, that's what we want; [82 percent] is good, but it's not great. It's stunning to me that [these businesses] would be willing to risk their livelihood to do something foolish."

Foolhardy risk is by no means solely a behavior of marijuana store clerks. In September, an IRS agent named Paul G. Hurley was arrested in Seattle for soliciting a bribe from a local marijuana business owner. Prosecutors say that Hurley demanded $20,000 cash from a marijuana shop owner in exchange for granting lenience in an audit.

After the illicit proposition, the business owner, who hadn’t requested the deal, reported Hurley to federal authorities. Agents set up cameras and a wire to monitor the handover of cash, snagging a government operative in what some stung pot-shop employees might view as a reverse sting.

Neighborhood liquor stores stay open for decades on end while being hit with random and regular compliance stings. Sure pot businesses are part of a new industry, but selling to a kid is a wake-up call that no one should really be caught sleeping on.

Ganja entrepreneurs need to ask themselves: “Do I want to contribute to a legitimate source of community prosperity? Or do I want to be a THC-branded version of Paul G. Hurley?”

At this writing, the stung IRS agent has been charged in U.S. District Court with soliciting and agreeing to receive a bribe and two counts of receiving a bribe by a public official. If convicted, he will be ineligible to sell weed in every state of the union.