By Thomas K. Pendergast
Cannabis club owners and employees are on edge about the increase in thefts and robberies during the last few months, including one in the Richmond District that was burglarized recently. Some are demanding more support from authorities.
There are at least six clubs on the west side, three in the Richmond and three in the Sunset. Police stations in both districts are experiencing staffing shortages.
Duncan Ley owns the California Street Cannabis Company, which was burglarized in January at about 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.
Ley said the burglars pried open the outer security gate. After watching the store security camera footage, he estimates it took them about 10-to-12 minutes to get through the first door. About half a dozen of the suspects got through the second door much quicker, setting off the alarm. It took them about six minutes to loot the shop.
“They were clearly professional,” Ley said.
He said it took police about 12 minutes to respond even though the Richmond police station is only a few blocks from his store. Ley recognizes that the department is understaffed.
“If they’re out responding to some junkies on Ocean Beach, it’s going to take them 12 minutes to get here even at full speed coming down Geary,” he said. “Crime is rampant in this City. Criminals operate with impunity. I think the police response time was (inadequate). I’m aware of their under-staffing issues, but by no means am I letting them off the hook.”
At a town hall meeting last March, Richmond Station Capt. Chris Canning said police were “suffering from staffing duress.” He explained that four years ago that station had more than 90 assigned police officers, not including sergeants, lieutenants and him.
He acknowledged that the staff count has dropped dramatically.
Today, the head count is “in the low 50s,” Canning said. “This is a 24-7 operation. I’ve got about six main shifts to fill.”
“The financial loss was not insignificant,” Ley said “I’m still waiting for an insurance claim to process, so we’re in limbo. I’ve got to have products on the shelves to serve our customers. And I’ve got to pay our staff.”
He said the criminals are becoming more emboldened because there has been no organized response to stop this.
“These guys just waltz in here and steal our product,” Ley lamented. “Nobody seems to be coming to help us. Nobody seems to care.”
Sunset District resident Ali Jamalian cares a lot about the cannabis club crime spree.
As chairman of the SF Cannabis Oversight Committee, president of the California State Cannabis Advisory Committee to the Department of Cannabis Control and owner of Sunset Connect, a manufacturer of pre-rolls, topicals, hash products and the like, Jamalian is keenly aware of the problem, especially after his own business was burglarized.
“The burglars did run away because they heard the sirens,” Jamalian said. “What was disappointing was that SFPD literally pulled up behind them, like five feet behind them, when they’d just got in the car to leave. And it was like three in the morning; they could have pursued them and they didn’t.”
Jamalian blames SF Police Commission policy for that, which is when it becomes apparent the benefits of immediate apprehension are clearly outweighed by an unreasonable danger to the officer or others, the officer shall not initiate a pursuit.
He thinks the burglars know this as well.
“I think they’re becoming emboldened because their success rate is nearly 100%,” Jamalian said. “If you’re doing something and you have that kind of success rate, why would you stop doing it? So, that’s our common consensus at Sunset Connect. Most of my employees and staff are just shaking their heads and saying ‘well these guys have a 100% success rate. They’re not going to stop.’”
The danger to employees also seems to be escalating.
In February, a worker at the cannabis club Stiizy, in the SoMa area, was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to open up that store and locked areas inside.
Jamalian said these are organized gangs and they are getting more sophisticated.
“It’s more of an industry inside job,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is actually putting out the implication that it’s one of the former employees of any of these dispensaries. There seems to be a rumor out there that one of the guys from this crew used to work for a large distributor that works California-wide, which would sort of explain why they have access to all of these addresses.
“The fact that when they get into a cannabis premises – even though, in our case, they clearly didn’t know the premises – they hadn’t been there before, but they knew how to move around and look for the right things. And that’s what most of us operators are hung up on; that they know what they’re looking for.”
Jason Paul, owner of Cannabis Cultures in the Sunset District, agrees “100%” that inside information is being passed around.
Although so far his store has not been hit, he is also suspicious about how these crimes are escalating.
“Someone doesn’t just follow someone home and all of a sudden kidnap them and take them to the store to force them to open,” Paul said. “There’s got to be some kind of point of contact or some relationship there. That’s typically what happens. There’s someone on the inside who knows something that’s getting these people the information, the intelligence to even pull off something like that.”
He is also worried that these crimes will stigmatize cannabis clubs more than they already have been.
“Neighborhoods have a misconception. They think that because it’s cannabis, it’s going to bring a lot of the bad element there,” he said. “But this has been going on forever. Businesses get robbed in the Sunset. Shoe businesses get robbed in the Sunset. It’s not just the cannabis.
“People are just getting desperate. It’s the times.”
Jamalian agrees that these burglaries are part of a larger crime trend in general.
“I think that’s more of a recent development that sort of goes hand in hand with the general rise in property crimes and violent crimes in San Francisco,” he said. “As someone who has been in the cannabis industry in the City since 1999, these are some of the scariest and most disturbing times I’ve gone through.
“These robberies and these burglaries do not help our argument that we work so hard to substantiate with data that it makes places safer. So this is very counterproductive to that. I don’t think anybody would argue that. That’s not a good look, I agree.”
Ley also rejects the idea that cannabis clubs bring a bad element to a neighborhood.
“When somebody comes out to say that it’s going to bring an unsavory clientele, that’s just an old racist trope; that’s baloney,” Ley said. “We’re being robbed because we have a product, the same as when a Luis Vuitton store would be robbed. The same as a store with any high-priced merchandise is going to get robbed.”
“This isn’t just a cannabis issue,” Ley said. “It’s really not all that different with what’s happening with catalytic converters. It’s the same organized activity, fencing operations. It’s just different groups are doing different crimes. Who is chasing them down?”
“We’re the victims of inaction at the city and the state level.”
Did we not have a crew of private security personnel that patrolled the commercial areas in black and
white sedans? I have not seen any but they did exist. Where are they now?