Videos of “smash and grab” mob thefts in high-end shopping districts have lately become ubiquitous. Everyone’s seen those images of thieves in hoodies and masks toting off designer purses and jewelry. Observers, however, have typically shrugged. Robbing rich folks? No big deal.
But the smash and grab trend is now spreading to smaller, less affluent retail outlets; and cannabis shops are particular targets.
“That’s how most of these robberies have been: a number of these folks coming in at the same time – like a dozen,” Oakland, California, cannabis entrepreneur Amber Senter said in an interview. “There were a dozen that broke into my facility [EquityWorks! incubator]. This was the early morning of November 20. They broke all the doors. They broke all the locks. They stole some products, ransacked the place.”
Some $30,000 was lost, Senter said. “It’s hard – I’m a small operator,” she said. “But it’s certainly a lot less than what some of my colleagues have sustained.” In fact, reports confirm that a large number have sustained losses. “I just know that the week I was robbed, there were about 20 other cannabis businesses in Oakland robbed,” Senter said.
A Dec. 1 San Francisco Examiner article reported that number for Oakland plus another four robberies in neighboring San Francisco. The Examiner also reported the disturbing fact that the robbery trend had turned violent, with guns fired. Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said, on November 22, that more than 175 shots had previously been fired in Oakland thefts alone.
The paper also reported a surveillance video from the BASA dispensary that showing police standing by doing nothing as thieves carried out garbage bags of product. At a press conference at that time about the thefts, Senter said publicly, “It’s proving to be unbearable.”
The cannabis entrepreneur not only runs the EquityWorks! incubator and several brands gathered under the umbrella Makr House, she’s also executive director, cofounder and chairperson of Supernova, a nonprofit that supports women of color working in the plant medicine space.
Those credentials have led her to work on social equity programs with both Oakland and San Francisco. And that work in turn has given her top-level access: Just the day before the interview, Senter spoke with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. She said she told the D.A. about the external surveillance video of her own robbery, clearly identifying vehicle license plates. Yet police didn’t respond to her complaint, Senter said. They just told her to file an online police report.
There are multiple possible explanations for this inaction. One is the reduced number of officers on the streets. Another is the fact that cannabis (marijuana, containing psychoactive THC] remains illegal at the federal level and in many states. As a result, some law enforcers may not take crimes against cannabis shops seriously; these offenses are de-prioritized.
In California, this lack of police action may hark back to Proposition 14, a 2014 state law which reduced the severity of sentencing for certain nonviolent property and drug crimes. Some people believe that Prop 14 removed any penalty at all, though low-level crimes in California are still misdemeanors.
The reasoning why thieves are organizing mobs is clearer: Typically they come about via social media “announcements” so criminals can’t ID one another.
Those thieves’ motivation is also clear. First, there’s the steep cost of doing business legally in the cannabis sphere. “We’re under attack because people are desperate,” Senter said of her fellow operators. “The high cost of legal cannabis is driving an [illicit] unregulated market, and until taxes are lowered and these unregulated operators have an incentive to transition into the regulated market, we are going to continue to see these things.”
Indeed, the tax rate for cannabis Senter says she pays in Oakland is 9.5 percent versus just .12 percent for other retailers. (She applauded the fact that nearby San Francisco has waived such a high rate for cannabis businesses.) To make matters worse, insurers will cover only structural damage to cannabis shops.
Ryan Hale, in a separate interview, echoed these concerns. He’s partner and chief sales officer of Fresno-based Operational Security Solutions, which provides armored trucks, guards and guidance to cannabis owners.
Like Senter, Hale pointed out that given the hike in the cost of a pound of cannabis in California — $1,400 today versus $450 a year ago– thieves can easily sell marijuana on the street. “That’s an easier product to move than a Louis Vuitton purse or stolen phone, unless thieves have access to the ‘right’ kind of pawn shops,” Hale said.
Of course thieves also want to consume what they steal, Hale said.
He offered yet another motivating factor for thieves: “Because cannabis is largely a cash industry [most interstate banks won’t do business with them], there’s a perception that every location has hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash on hand,” Hale said. “The reality is that most of the retails do not have [excessive] cash on hand,” he said — a sentiment echoed by Senter, who said that more and more local banks have offered the services she needs.
The smash and grab phenomenon against cannabis business, meanwhile, has been building for the past two years, Hale said, borne of the social unrest from police shootings and pandemic frustration, combined with the power of social media. “We tried to prepare businesses for a long-term trend,” he said of his security consultants’ recent efforts.
Preparation is key, Hale emphasized. To protect themselves against thieves, cannabis retailers need to beef up their surveillance, train their staffs on what to do in the event of a mob theft, and develop relationships with law enforcement. “It really does take community to confront to combat this kind of community issue,” Hale said.