Last summer, during the protests following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, legal cannabis businesses in San Francisco and Oakland, California were repeatedly burglarized by what victims as well as authorities described as organized break-in crews.
Though police did make some arrests, a year and a half later, instead of deterred, thieves appear emboldened. In the past two weeks, at least 25 cannabis businesses—including retail storefronts as well as cultivation and distribution centers— in Oakland alone have been burglarized, with damages in excess of $5 million.
And according to outraged and bereft cannabis business owners, police are encouraging this crime wave by not responding to reports of break-ins—arriving hours later only to ask owners to file a police report, if they respond at all—or, in at least one recorded instance, appearing to stand by and watch as unarmed thieves robbed a legal marijuana store blind.
“Cannabis business are being attacked,” as Amber Senter, a leading Oakland cannabis entrepreneur and social-equity advocate, said in an interview. One of Senter’s businesses was also burglarized, she said.
And police “are letting it happen,” she added.
Senter led calls Monday for tax relief and increased police presence for legal marijuana businesses, who pay the highest city and state taxes of any merchants in the city. In addition to steep state sales and excise taxes, a local tax levied on Oakland’s several hundred marijuana businesses deposits an extra $14 million annually in city coffers, according to budget figures.
With an investment like that, marijuana businesses expect a return in the way of city services such as police protection. They have a point—providing security is one of the most basic functions of a state.
In the meantime, a serious question arises: what’s going on with the cops?
In the wee hours of Nov. 16, a neighbor called 911 to report a break-in at Bay Area Safe Alternatives, a longtime cannabis dispensary in San Francisco.
As video surveillance footage provided to police as well as politicians and local media showed, San Francisco police responded to the scene of the crime—and then “stood by” and watched as at least three suspected burglars filled up a bag with merchandise, piled into a getaway car, and then politely executed a three-point turn before driving away.
The city’s mayor and other authorities declined to comment, citing a pending investigation. But as police experts told the San Francisco Chronicle, this incident bears every indication of some organized non-intervention order—an analysis cannabis industry insiders share.
“This is a very blatant, ‘We ain’t doing anything’” situation, said one San Francisco-based cannabis business owner, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
Authorities in both San Francisco and Oakland claim their cities have been beset by crime in the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. In San Francisco, for example, luxury retailers in the city’s posh Union Square shopping corridor like Louis Vuitton have been hit in brazen “mob-style” burglaries. But in that case, police have made arrests—and Mayor London Breed made clamping down on such lawlessness a city priority.
In comparison, the response to cannabis business’s woes is bizarrely muted, critics like Senter say.
In an e-mail, a Oakland police spokesperson acknowledged that the department had received at least 20 reports of break-ins at marijuana businesses since mid-November, when the San Francisco dispensary was robbed.
“We are aware of at least 20 cannabis operations where a burglary or attempt [sic] burglary was made last week,” spokesperson Paul Chambers wrote.
Chambers did not provide any information about response times or arrests. Nor did he address rumors of at least one shooting at a break-in.
Since police aren’t offering an explanation, in interviews, a few theories behind this pattern of behavior appeared.
One is that police simply aren’t on board with the legal use and sale of cannabis, a formerly illicit drug that for decades padded arrest statistics—and this non-intervention is a form of protest.
In that same vein, another theory, offered by Senter and other critics, is that cops, smarting from hurt pride following the George Floyd protests and calls to defund the police, are responding by simply standing down.
In the view of Tariq Alazraie, the owner at BASA, police may be afraid to engage with possibly armed thieves for fear of being prosecuted themselves in the event of a fatal shooting, he said in an interview. (In San Francisco, it should be noted, progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin is facing a recall election in June—and the cops strongly dislike him. In this theory, they may be trying to impart a feeling of lawlessness on voters, who will in turn punish Boudin rather than police.)
Yet another theory—maybe the most accommodating—is that cops are, like the rest of us, overwhelmed and freaked out, and thus paralyzed into inaction.
Though crime across California “remain[ed] historically low as of fall 2020,” as the Public Policy Institute of California found, something appears to have turned in 2021, at least according to Oakland police.
Perhaps it was the end of pandemic unemployment assistance, perhaps it was the end of stimulus spending, or perhaps it was exhaustion with masking, social distancing, and shuttered businesses. Whatever the cause, in Oakland, violent crime—armed robberies and carjackings as well as homicides—have sharply increased in the past year, as OPD claimed at a September press conference.
For his part, Oakland police Chief LeRonne Armstrong has pleaded for help from the City Council, claiming that his force is simply overwhelmed by an unprecedented and unyielding wave of violent crime that’s swarming everyone, not just cannabis businesses.
“Beyond the politics of whether you support police or not, there is a clear problem in this city,” he said earlier this month, as per the San Francisco Chronicle. “Nobody should have to live through this.”
It’s not clear what Armstrong needs or wants to get a handle on the chaos. As the newspaper noted, Oakland’s city council recently voted to increase the police budget to $336 million annually—a little more than one-sixth of the city’s annual $1.7 billion spending.
At a press conference Monday, Senter called for two years of immediate tax relief for marijuana businesses. In Oakland, a few elected officials have acknowledged this reality and echoed the call. In an Instagram post, City Council member Rebecca Kaplan pledgedto introduce a measure to cut taxes, which the legal industry has now for years said are eliminating their profits as well as encouraging the illicit market—which, if this state of affairs continues, may be all that’s left in California before too long.