Cannabis shopkeepers seek solutions to rash of robberies

Shopkeepers feel law enforcement prioritizes other retail crime

Amid a rise in retail theft, a spate of violent burglaries have targeted cannabis businesses in the Bay Area. Yet many owners say police are slow to respond to their calls, prioritizing burglaries targeting other retail sectors over robberies hitting their shops.

“You look at the Union Square case, and police were adamant to get in there, protect these businesses and get these people arrested,” says Anisa Alazraie, a marketing data analyst at the San Francisco dispensary BASA, which was burgled last month.

In security footage, police officers appear to have watched the burglary take place for several minutes but did not intervene.

“I don’t see that kind of enthusiasm for small businesses, and especially cannabis businesses,” said Alazraie.

In November, at least 175 shots were fired in the course of over 25 burglaries targeting cannabis businesses in the Bay Area. In the past two weeks alone, seven cannabis businesses in Bayview have been burglarized without a single arrest made.

Some cannabis business operators are looking for long-term solutions both to the robberies and what they consider official indifference. Some demand more consistent follow-up on investigations from the San Francisco Police Department and a cannabis industry police liaison. Others invest thousands of dollars to secure their businesses with powerful metal gates and numerous sets of security cameras. Some even turn to armed security. But most importantly, they demand to be treated like any other industry.

Cannabis businesses are at increased risk of burglary for several reasons. For one, a lack of banking access due to cannabis still being federally illegal means many businesses operate only in cash. Federal prohibition also means that many large, multistate security and insurance companies are hesitant to work with cannabis businesses because of the legal liability. And of course, cannabis products are some of the easiest retail goods to resell on the black market.

But this issue goes deeper. Because of cannabis’ recent illegality in California, many business owners fear there is a lingering bias against the industry within the SFPD and city government. In fact, Alazraie, who is also president of the Divisadero Merchants Association, says that she shared security footage with the San Francisco Chronicle in order to get the attention of Mayor London Breed’s office.

“I had had a meeting with the mayor’s chief of staff and he was not exactly thrilled to participate in what I was hoping to achieve by working with him and with other businesses,” she says. “It wasn’t a flat out ‘no,’ but it was more a lack of willingness to communicate with me and see this as a real issue.”

The mayor’s chief of staff, Sean Elsbernd, did not respond to requests for comment.

Former San Francisco and Oakland police officer turned cannabis security consultant Chris Eggers says all of these factors make it so dispensaries have a different “risk profile” than other types of retail. He says that when he was a foot beat officer on Market Street, a city supervisor at the time told him not to interact with a cannabis business owner along his patrol route. “The supervisor told me, ‘Hey, don’t go in there, don’t deal with those people,” he says. “I always said, ‘No, you can’t tell me to not go and check on a licensed, legal business — they should be afforded the same service that everyone else gets.’”

SFPD was unable to verify this conversation.

In contrast, Eggers argues that “not only law enforcement, but city politicians should want to come to the table and help the cannabis industry navigate the very specific risk profile that we’re seeing play out in a very violent way, consistently.”

One solution Alazraie suggests is to mandate follow-up with crime victims after reported burglaries from SFPD. Amber Senter, a business owner and cannabis industry organizer who holds two licenses in San Francisco, also argued for this at a press conference last month. SFPD has on multiple occasions admitted to not always following up with business owners about pending investigations — some cases just go cold, even if SFPD takes them seriously, and the resource-strapped department claims they don’t always have the time to get back to victims with an update.

“There’s not always enough evidence to pursue cases, and that’s fine, but nobody trusts you to do your job because you’re not telling them where (the investigation) is at,” says Alazraie.

Senter also has called for a liaison between the cannabis industry and police. Though she was speaking about robberies in Oakland at a November press conference, she says such a liaison could also be useful here. Alazraie adds that the Small Business Advisory Committee — a group that advises the police department — already exists, though a liaison could raise the stakes.

Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district includes BASA, echoes this sentiment. Business owner input is crucial, he says, because “we need to be really careful, as elected officials, about not offering false solutions.” Investigating the incident at BASA, specifically, is crucial according to Preston because “we need to know what happened there, whether it’s an isolated incident, or if this is happening elsewhere.”

Others, like owner of The Green Cross dispensary Kevin Reed, don’t share this skepticism of SFPD. Though he is in the distinct minority of cannabis business owners who spoke with The Examiner, he says SFPD has protected his business with the “utmost professionalism.” Though he admits the footage from BASA is concerning, and doesn’t question other business owners’ experiences, he says that “I could never say that the police haven’t done their job and showed up every single time.”

Reed is wary of creating new committees or liaison positions because he doesn’t want to create more bureaucracy. He’s more frustrated with city government, which, he argues, has created several opportunities for input but few vehicles for implementation.

Reed is one of the few remaining business people in The City who is considered a “legacy operator,” allowed to operate before the industry was fully regulated under California’s Prop 64. Legacy operators, most of whom are tied to the decades-old fight for legal cannabis, have been very vocal throughout the years. But Reed says they’ve been largely ignored. “All I see is the entire old industry shutting down one by one,” he says. “I don’t even go to any hearings anymore, because it’s been such a mess.”

Customers examine the options at The Green Cross cannabis dispensary, where owner Kevin Reed has installed numerous metal gates, security cameras, door locks, panic buttons and high-strength laminated glass on the front display windows. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Customers examine the options at The Green Cross cannabis dispensary, where owner Kevin Reed has installed numerous metal gates, security cameras, door locks, panic buttons and high-strength laminated glass on the front display windows. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Reed has taken more steps than most businesses to protect against burglaries. After facing numerous burglaries last summer and an attempted one this past month, he has installed numerous sets of metal gates and security cameras. Some of those cameras even use AI to alert remote security guards, who can then caution burglars that they’ve alerted the police from an attached speaker. Doors have additional locks, and panic buttons are distributed throughout the building. Glass on the front display windows has been replaced with a high-strength laminated variety.

Those windows saved Reed from having thousands of dollars of product stolen when they were burgled last month. Burglars chipped away at the glass for minutes, cracking it but unable to get through. Still, replacing the glass alone cost $18,000. “At this point I’m going to say that we’ve spent some $350,000 dollars on material improvements we’ve done to the building, and I’ve hired someone at $100,000 a year, full-time, to constantly work on these things,” he says.

But Reed says there’s some regulations that can get in the way of having the best security he can afford — namely a state regulation that requires cannabis businesses to keep 90 days of security footage saved. This regulation, he says, means he has to use security cameras that film in lower-definition, rendering it more difficult to identify suspects.

Other business owners mentioned the city’s regulations around roll-up security doors, which are prohibited in some commercial districts for aesthetic reasons. Being able to install roll-up doors that they can shut at the close of business, they say, would make it significantly more difficult for robbers to get inside.

Beyond that, business owners’ only additional option is to arm security — something that comes with considerable liability. Eggers says each business needs to calculate this risk for themselves, weighing multiple factors like the amount of product that could be stolen, crime rates in the area, insurance protection and how much money a business is able to spend on security, as armed security is significantly more expensive than those who are unarmed.

Most important to consider, however, is the worst-case scenario. “A real situation that could happen is police get a call to come down to your facility, because there’s been an accident, and when they get down there there’s dead bodies on your private property and the guard’s gun is smoking,” he explains. “I’m not saying armed guards aren’t the right solution, but we need to think about how bad things can get.”

Senter puts it more bluntly. “In my opinion, when you give someone a gun, you’re preparing for a shootout,” she says.

None of this would matter, however, if cannabis businesses were treated like normal businesses, most cannabis operators allege. If that were the case, they wouldn’t have the increased risk profile because of how much cash they have to keep on hand. They would be able to obtain the best security and insurance they could afford, without worrying about federal legal liability. And they wouldn’t fear that lingering stigma was generating unequal treatment from SFPD and city government.

“People are in this because of cannabis’ potential for wellness, for medicine,” says Senter. “Not to hire a security guard and put him on the roof with an AK-47.”

virwin@sfexaminer.com

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