Is The Marijuana Dispensary Break-in Wave Payback for “Defund the Police?”

If you work at a cannabis dispensary, cultivation site or distribution center in Oakland, CA, you likely spent most of New Year’s Eve with your eyes glued to a screen, nervously staring at security camera footage—like some weed version of The Purge—waiting to see if the evening would bring yet another wave of attackers to your doorstep. 2021 went and 2022 came without a reported smash-and-grab. But cannabis businesses are still on high alert in the Bay Area and much of California—a scene repeated throughout much of the country, but perhaps felt most acutely in the legalization movement’s northern California cradle.

In the final two weeks of November, there were at least 25 cannabis break-ins and burglaries at Bay Area dispensaries, according to cannabis advocates. Police response, if there was one at all, came hours later. The exception was one notorious Nov. 16 incident in San Francisco where the dispensary security feed captured not only the burglars smashing their way inside, but a carload of police, sitting outside and watching as the break-in crew ran out, tumbled into their car and executed a sloppy three-point turn before getting away scot-free—all while police watched. 

No Answers, No Outrage

That particular incident set off outrage among the cannabis community. Even so, Ali Jamalian, chair of San Francisco’s Cannabis Oversight Committee and founder/owner of the the city’s Sunset Connect manufacturing facility, says the situation hasn’t changed much. According to Jamalian, at a meeting just before Christmas, top SFPD brass apologized for the smash-and-grab incident, promised discipline for the officers involved and swore it would never happen again. If that’s true, the cops are keeping quiet. 

A request for a detailed explanation from San Francisco police and a confirmation of Jamalian’s account went unanswered. However, according to Matt Dorsey, an SFPD spokesman, the “department used the opportunity that the episode presented to engage the officers in retraining.”

Other city officials tasked with regulating cannabis seem similarly unconcerned. In an e-mail, John Pierce, the acting director of the city’s Office of Cannabis, said that only his office is “committed to continuing to create opportunities for operators and law enforcement to connect and collectively discuss and address public safety concerns.” He did not respond to further questions, nor did he address how the crime wave is affecting the industry.

Meanwhile, in on-background interviews and behind closed doors, most cannabis business operators are seething about the indifference to the increasing smash-and-grab occurrences. Across the board, they all say they feel abandoned by the police and by city government, and they wonder if it isn’t intentional—as either comeuppance for the Defund the Police movement, or just a general dislike for cannabis and disinclination to get involved. 

In any case, the rash of mostly unsolved and uninvestigated crimes comes at a crucial juncture. While the illicit market thrives, most legal cannabis business owners are crying poverty, smothered by taxes that hit 40 percent. The burglary wave is making some question the entire marijuana legalization experiment altogether, or even the industry’s imminent collapse in California.

After all, legalization meant coming out of the shadows, paying taxes—and, in theory, enjoying all the benefits a legitimate, honest citizen expects from the state, chief among them police protection. If they can’t get that, what’s the point?

Black Lives Matter murals in Oakland, CA. PHOTO by Levi Meir Clancy.

From Peace to Chaos

It wasn’t always like this. Prior to November 2016, when California voters approved adult-use marijuana legalization, there was a grand total of one attempted robbery at an Oakland medical cannabis dispensary, according to Chaney Turner, who chairs San Francisco’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission—and that robbery failed. Peace and order prevailed for more than a decade before cannabis was even fully legal.

Since then, the situation is closer to open season. Local weed stores have been robbed so many times since June 2020 that they’ve lost count—presuming that anyone, including the police, was keeping count to begin with. (A request for a total number of the smash-and-grab incidents to the Oakland Police Department was forwarded to the department’s public-records division. As of press time, that request was still pending.)

So, what’s going on? And how to stop it? To hear cannabis advocates tell it, cannabis businesses are being robbed for a very basic reason: economic need. Nearly two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, bank accounts are empty, stimulus checks are long gone, and relief for renters and borrowers is ending. People are hungry, in other words, and weed stores are just targets of opportunity, along with many other businesses. 

“I want people to know that the cannabis robberies is not a cannabis issue—all businesses are being targeted,” Turner said. “Robberies are happening throughout the city. It’s an issue of public safety.”

Crime Up, But Robberies Not Everywhere

The dispensary break-ins come during an overall increase in property and violent crime in the state. Critics of progressive prosecutors in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco blame new lenient state laws for the crime wave, including Prop. 47, a ballot proposition that downgraded most crimes to misdemeanors if the property involved was worth less than $950. Others, like Turner, point to the economic havoc triggered by the pandemic. 

But it’s worth pointing out the dispensary crime wave isn’t hitting every city in the state evenly. In San Jose, just a short drive to the south, dispensary operators report no such similar crime wave. “We haven’t see a lot of it in San Jose,” said Marc Matulich, the CEO of Airfield Supply Company, a large vertically integrated dispensary in that city. 

Then again, San Jose instituted stricter security controls on its cannabis industry than other cities. Airfield employs round-the-clock security guards, a $300 to $600 a night luxury some other dispensaries say they can’t afford. And, perhaps most importantly, the “defund the police” movement was not as vocal and active there compared to other cities.

Nationally, advocates for federal cannabis reform used the dispensary break-ins as a means to emphasize the need for measures like the SAFE Banking Act, a law stalled in Congress that would have made it easier for cannabis businesses to bank. 

However, as Turner pointed out, plenty of other businesses have been hit by smash-and-grab or mob-style robberies over the past year: drugstores, clothing stores and luxury retailers such as Louis Vuitton. 

“SAFE Banking is not going to stop robberies, period,” she said. “You have all these stores that have access to banking—and they’re still getting robbed.”

“But when it comes to actual police work—police work is not being done with regard to public safety,” said Turner, who pointed out that the incident in San Francisco where police stood and watched “was just the only one captured on video.”

Encouraged to Offend

At a recent Oakland cannabis commission meeting, Turner asked Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong exactly what his officers were doing during the November crime wave. In some cases, these robberies occurred while police claimed to be occupied with other things: marches after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, sideshows and the like. 

Police had issued a warning about possible riots or marches in response to the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers in Georgia, but after the guilty verdict came in, there were no marches. There were, however, break-ins—some while police stood and watched sideshows.

The net result is that “people are now more bold,” Turner said. “If you know you can commit a crime and there won’t be any response for hours, you don’t care where you commit that crime, because no one is responding to it.”

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