Highway robbery and the war against legal marijuana
On multiple occasions last year, armored vehicles transporting cash from licensed marijuana dispensaries were targeted and looted for a combined total of more than $1 million on the side of the highway in the Mojave Desert outside of San Bernardino, California.
It seemed as if the armored vehicle service, Empyreal Logistics, had unwittingly found itself caught in the middle of an organized effort to disrupt, intimidate and bankrupt the legal marijuana trade—and it wasn’t the first time. Another Empyreal truck was targeted in Kansas in early 2021, while ferrying cash from a medical dispensary in Missouri to a credit union in Colorado.
However, these weren’t robberies perpetrated by some roving group of bandits or a modern reincarnation of the Hole in the Wall Gang — they were seizures made by local law enforcement using a process known as Civil Asset Forfeiture.
In none of these cases were criminal charges brought against the armored truck company, marijuana dispensaries or even the financial institutions. In fact, the drivers themselves weren’t even issued traffic citations, let alone charged with being complicit in a criminal conspiracy. Instead, the money was seized on a generalized suspicion that such large sums could, possibly, be interpreted as potential evidence of money laundering — never mind that, thanks largely to federal regulations, the marijuana industry is forced to operate almost entirely in cash.
Far from being evidence of money laundering, large sums of cash in the cannabis industry are a routine part of a successful business model — not to mention that transporting it is pretty much the entire business model of an armored courier.
In Kansas, the Drug Enforcement Agency had targeted the truck company when they learned it would be visiting a dispensary, then told local authorities to “crush every one of their cars that they can identify” and confiscate the cash onboard. Similarly, outside of San Bernardino, local sheriff’s deputies targeted Empyreal trucks — ultimately seizing $1.1 million in legal cannabis proceeds headed to local financial institutions.
In each one of these cases, the cash was handed over to the federal government for forfeiture proceedings, with the understanding that local police departments would receive up to 80 percent of the total cash seized as part of the “equitable sharing” program with federal authorities — directly incentivizing them to continue the practice moving forward.
Given the fact that police departments can directly profit from such seizures without actually having to prove any criminal activity, civil asset forfeiture has long been abused by authorities to boost their budgets. Here in Nevada, we’ve seen our fair share of forfeiture horror stories — with narratives reminiscent of soviet-style corruption rather than American law-enforcement tactics.
Just last year, for example, a Marine Corps veteran traveling through Nevada to see his family had his entire life savings confiscated by Nevada Highway Patrol during a routine traffic stop without any criminal charges ever being filed against him. The mere fact that he had a large sum of cash was, in and of itself, enough “reason” for local officers to leave him penniless and stranded on the side of the road.
However, law enforcement’s escalation from targeting random motorists to targeting armored vehicles shows a kind of brazen criminal ingenuity not seen since outlaw gangs graduated to bank robbery in the Wild West. As Paul Newman’s character said in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Banks are better than trains… you know the money is in there!” Maybe, given the profit incentives police departments face, it was just a matter of time before they came to a similar realization about armored trucks.
The Los Angeles Times has rightly pointed out that these forfeiture cases also raise questions about whether the Biden Justice Department is engaged in a deliberate attempt to disrupt the operations of an industry that remains illegal on the federal level — despite clear federal guidelines for a “hands off” approach. It’s a reasonable concern. However, the more worrying aspect ought to be the complicity of local law enforcement.
Not since the days of someone riding “shotgun” on a Wells Fargo coach have most legal businesses had to worry much about their armored couriers getting plundered on the way to the bank. The idea that operators in the legal cannabis market might actually have such worries is bad enough. The fact that it is their local law enforcement agencies doing the plundering is a sad statement on just how much the industry remains on the legal outskirts, despite recent decriminalization efforts.
Certainly, it’s one of the many reasons The States Reform Act, introduced by Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC), is so necessary. By legalizing marijuana on the federal level, the Act would remove at least one (flimsy) justification for the feds to engage in such appalling tactics. It would also give those operating in the industry a codified level of legitimacy they currently lack among law enforcement agencies at all levels of government.
However, it wouldn’t solve the problem in its entirety. After all, prohibitionists are still alive and well in American politics, and the War on Drugs remains a highly profitable cavalcade of civil rights abuses for local law enforcement — with practices such as Civil Asset Forfeiture proving themselves stubbornly resistant to reform.
For the Nevada marijuana market, the events in California and Kansas should be an unsettling reminder of how precariously dependent the industry is on the whims of government officials. Federal authorities have been less than friendly to the industry since the early days of legalization, and it has been struggling to operate inside a patchwork of confusing, complex and often contradictory legal standards since the beginning.
The idea that it must also contend with highway robbers who operate under the color of law shows just how much the War on Drugs has corrupted law enforcement’s understanding of what it means to “protect and serve.”
Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.