Organized Thieves Use Protests As Cover to Raid Weed Dispensaries
“Everyone’s getting it,” as one owner put it. And legit weed dealers are freaking out.
At around 10:45 p.m. Saturday night, about 15 people massed outside the doors of Connected SF, a San Francisco recreational cannabis dispensary, their arrival captured on security camera footage.
Located in a relatively quiet residential area of San Francisco, the dispensary is more than five miles away from the city’s downtown corridors, where demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd had been squaring off with police.
The physical remove is one reason Luke Coleman, the dispensary’s owner, believes the crowd who breached the door and ransacked the dispensary were part of an organized and dedicated break-in crew.
They were too far away to be connected with the demonstration, he argued; more sophisticated than the rogue window-smashers looting retail outlets in San Francisco’s downtown and that of other cities across America. And there were too many of them doing the exact same thing elsewhere, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, and anywhere else legal weed businesses could be found.
“It was definitely a planned attack,” Coleman told The Daily Beast.
According to interviews with about a dozen dispensary owners, cannabis business representatives and attorneys this week, Connected SF was one of dozens of California marijuana businesses to be robbed in similar and almost clinical fashion over the weekend. This includes cultivation and distribution warehouses that do not advertise their addresses to the public, but which—once identified—serve as likely caches of hard currency as well as cannabis products.
While any industry might have a vested interest in presenting looting of its storefronts as a unique menace, the cannabis burglary spree is receiving official attention, as well. All signs point to organized and skilled thieves targeting cannabis businesses, fully aware that police are more than occupied with demonstrators.
“Outside of Union Square, there were two types of businesses that were hit: With a handful of exceptions, they were either pharmacies, or cannabis clubs,” San Francisco city Supervisor Aaron Peskin told The Daily Beast.
In his district, several dispensaries were burglarized in commercial corridors, where “nothing else got hit,” he said. “This had nothing to do with police brutality and the death of Geroge Floyd,” Peskin added. “This was organized, premeditated crime.”
About a half-hour before Connected SF was hit, three cars appeared outside of California Street Cannabis, in the city’s Lower Nob Hill neighborhood, according to Ben Bleiman, one of the owners.
“They had a lookout and they had an entry guy,” Bleiman told The Daily Beast, expressing disbelief at how quickly the crew breached the dispensary’s scissor door. “This is the definition of organized crime. Three cars pulled up at the same time, they gained entry, grabbed everything they could, and were in and out in two minutes. That is organized.”
Similar scenes played out at about 10 San Francisco dispensaries on Saturday night, according to interviews and reviews of security camera footage shared with The Daily Beast. More were hit Sunday and Monday. At least two, including Connected SF, were “visited” four nights in a row, owners and managers told The Daily Beast.
In an email Tuesday, Officer Adam Lobsinger, a San Francisco police spokesman, said it was “too early in the investigation(s) to determine what connections, if any, the burglaries may have.”
Police and elected officials in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro, other cities in the Bay Area where cannabis business owners reported break-ins, did not respond to requests for comment. State cannabis industry regulators, already struggling to prop up the legal industry against illicit market competition, offered a muted response.
“The state is aware of the activity occurring at licensed locations and is closely monitoring this type of activity statewide,” said Nicole Elliott, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior adviser on cannabis. She declined to comment further.
It’s well known that cannabis businesses are shut out from using most banks, which reject deposits from merchants whose activity is prohibited under federal law. The burglary patterns suggest a focus on these potential cash stashes—as well as expensive name brand weed likely to be popular on the underground market.
In security camera footage reviewed by The Daily Beast (and also posted to Instagram), a crowd of more than a dozen people, some wearing masks, were seen lifting up a security gate to enter Moe Green’s, a dispensary on Market Street in San Francisco. (Later, the dispensary replaced glass windows with plywood boards, spray-painted with a message both timely and reminiscent of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: “Black lives matter. ARMED INSIDE.”)
Another large crowd at a dispensary collective called BASA took their time kicking in the front door, according to video shared with The Daily Beast. Images from there, and photos of a break-in at Blum in Oakland, show the thieves accessing secure back areas, where dispensaries stash cash and financial records. Invaders held the dispensary’s armed guard at gunpoint while they ransacked the dispensary, Blum executive Mike Nahass wrote in a letter to employees that was obtained by The Daily Beast.
The wave of destruction has caused enormous unease in the legalized industry and sown serious doubt about cops’ and regulators’ ability to provide security to legitimate cannabis businesses. In fact, the break-ins led the state Bureau of Cannabis Control to remove business addresses from the internet on Monday to deter further burglaries, according to spokesman Alex Traverso.
Several dispensaries in the Bay Area have chosen to shut down operations entirely over security fears. Others reported more break-ins on Monday night, despite having already been cleared out of cash and product.
“This emergency is not over,” the San Francisco Office of Cannabis told permit-holders in an email blast issued over the weekend. “[B]usinesses should be prepared to secure their locations over the next few days.”
Break-ins at dispensaries have been reported in other U.S. cities with legal cannabis markets, including Chicago and Boston, as well as at a medical cannabis dispensary in Florida.
In Massachusetts, a spokesperson for the state Cannabis Control Commission said the agency was “currently aware of and investigating three overnight incidents that occurred at Pure Oasis, Patriot Care, and Mayflower Medicinals in Boston Sunday, May 31 into Monday, June 1,” but declined to comment further.
What was clear Monday was that “everyone’s getting it,” as Coleman, Connected SF’s owner, put it.
Since the break-in and breach, Coleman said, Connected hired four around-the-clock security guards—who deterred bands of would-be burglars “six different times,” he told The Daily Beast.
Numerous sources told The Daily Beast similar stories of robberies at distribution warehouses, manufacturing labs, and grow facilities. All of these businesses are more subtle in appearance than retail dispensaries—they don’t typically post flashy signage and don’t advertise their addresses online or in Weedmaps. What they did have were addresses posted on a state Bureau of Cannabis Control database, as part of licensing requirements.
“It’s just motherfuckers looking for a lick,” said Shawn Richard, the CEO and majority owner of Berner’s on Haight, a dispensary in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. But looking carefully, all over the lengthy, regulated supply chain.
“They’re hitting dispensaries, they’re hitting distros [distribution centers, where cannabis wholesalers drop off product in exchange for cash], they’re hitting all that shit,” he added. “They know exactly what they’re doing.”