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As marijuana break-ins skyrocket in California, business owners take action

By Chris Roberts, Reporter

April 6, 2023 - Updated April 7, 2023

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Security cameras captured break-ins at SOG Army, which runs cannabis cultivation and distribution operations in California. (Photos courtesy of B.J. Hughes)

Like most marijuana business owners he knows in California, Sebastian Maldonado’s vertically integrated cannabis company, Delta Boyz, has been burglarized repeatedly.

Maldonado, a Delta Boyz co-owner, estimates the company – which operates a store, distribution center and cultivation facility south of Sacramento, in Isleton – has suffered $1 million in stolen product over the past three years. Instead of improving, however, the 2 a.m. alarms, broken doors, busted locks and pilfered high-end cannabis Maldonado later sees fenced on Instagram has worsened. Four incidents occurred in March alone at Delta Boyz: three attempts and one successful break-in, according to Maldonado.

Despite ample security footage and alarms that immediately notify police of a burglary in progress, only one of those incidents resulted in an arrest. Across California, burglaries continue to plague licensed cannabis businesses with near impunity – sometimes with deadly results.

The ongoing crime wave is forcing business owners to spend thousands of dollars a month on security measures.

Moreover, the growing rash of unsolved crimes is ringing alarm bells among cannabis executives, who are concerned about the negative impact on the state’s legal industry. According to state data obtained by MJBizDaily, reported break-ins and burglaries at California cannabis businesses more than doubled from 2021 to 2022. This year, according to multiple interviews, the crimes have become more sophisticated, with break-in crews armed with sophisticated tools appearing at distribution warehouses that don’t have a publicly listed address.

That’s led business owners to suspect an “inside job”: someone currently or formerly employed in the industry, who would know where to go and what to look for, and whose identity would be in the state-mandated database of qualified cannabis employees. But since the break-ins have continued and law enforcement has made few arrests, frustrated and exhausted business owners say they’ve been forced to take matters into their own hands. On Thursday, a coterie of at least a half-dozen licensed cannabis businesses, including Cookies-branded Berner’s on Haight in San Francisco, will make a public appeal. They’ll offer reward money for information that leads to any arrests, as well as an ultimatum: If authorities cannot stem the tide of break-ins, the marijuana legalization experiment is at risk. And it’s only a matter of time before more people are seriously hurt or killed, they say. Getting worse Industry officials say the break-ins at licensed cannabis businesses in California gathered momentum during the chaos and confusion of the May-June 2020 protests that followed George Floyd’s murder. Since then, the break-ins have risen rapidly after COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns were lifted, according to state data. In 2022, licensed businesses in California reported 329 break-ins or burglaries with losses, according to California Department of Cannabis Control figures provided to MJBizDaily. That’s more than double the 147 burglaries reported in 2021. The worst-hit counties were Los Angeles, the state’s most-populous, with 111 reported incidents. Alameda County, home to cannabis-friendly cities Berkeley and Oakland, had 52 reported incidents. Through March 24 of this year, 85 break-ins had been reported to the DCC, according to state data. ADVERTISEMENT Many break-ins follow a pattern, with several carloads of individuals showing up at businesses in the wee hours. Several have been described as “brazen,” with security gates pulled from their frames by vehicles. That’s what happened last month at Reese Benton’s Posh Green, one of the few San Francisco marijuana businesses owned by a Black woman. San Francisco police confirmed the break-in at Posh Green. No arrests have been made. It’s unclear how many break-ins result in arrests. That data is not kept by the DCC. At least several times, break-ins have turned fatal. Individual law enforcement agencies, including the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office and San Francisco police, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about their approach to such crimes. But among licensed business owners, the near-universal belief is that law enforcement simply does not prioritize crimes against marijuana businesses. “No police in any jurisdiction has helped at all,” said B.J. Hughes of SOG Army, which runs cultivation and distribution operations in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, and Redding, in Shasta County. In both places, he says, police response times were appallingly slow, and law enforcement seemed uninterested in pursuing a case. After a recent break-in in Santa Rosa, Hughes said, police responded 25 minutes after the first alarms were triggered. In Redding, he said, the response time was 40 minutes. Hughes said he provided security-camera footage with license plate numbers to police, but no arrests have been made. Even after he hired a private investigator who identified a potential perpetrator – whom Hughes believes might have been formerly employed by a licensed distributor who had visited his facility – police “did not care to follow up,” he said. “Nobody gives a s***,” he said. “They just feel like this is the cost of doing business. “We can’t make the police do anything.” Arm yourself

The problem is worsening despite widespread awareness, with security footage showing gangs of hooded burglars loading up cars with cash and product appearing on the evening news.

At the suggestion of law enforcement, Maldonado hired 24-hour security guards armed with semi-automatic AR-15 rifles.

The monthly tab is $20,000 per month, which “eats away at our margins,” he said. And Maldonado is well aware of the risk of a shootout, which could lead to him losing his business licenses.

“It’s just an absolute nightmare,” he said. Even with well-armed guards, the break-ins have continued. After he lost $250,000 during a late-January heist, carloads of burglars showed up four times in March, Maldonado said.

Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies made an arrest – and that was only after Delta Boyz took matters into its own hands. After a March 5 break-in, Maldonado said, “we followed one of the cars full of our weed” all the way from Isleton to the Sacramento city limits, about a 45-minute drive on twisty country roads and Interstate 5, he said.

Waiting sheriff’s deputies intercepted the alleged burglars at a highway off-ramp and arrested them, but even then, Maldonado didn’t recover any losses:

The stolen product is sitting in a sheriff’s department evidence locker, getting stale, he said. Inside job

In San Francisco, burglars hit Sunset Connect – a social equity-licensed distribution and manufacturing facility in the city’s semi-industrial South of Market district – in the wee hours of March 29, according to owner and founder Ali Jamalian, who shared security-camera footage with MJBizDaily.

Located next to one of the many auto-body shops in the area, Sunset Connect’s address isn’t publicly listed, either on the state DCC’s database or via aggregators such as Weedmaps that advertise marijuana retailers.

From the street, the business looks low-key: a matte-black paint job over bricks and a roll-down steel gate with zero signage.

Both the expansion of burglaries of retailers and the burglars’ conduct is indicative of an “inside job,” Jamalian said.

“It’s definitely someone from within the industry that’s doing these hits, or formerly part of this industry,” he said.

“I think that is obvious by the way they move through our facilities. They know what to look for.”

‘Needs to be addressed’

On Thursday, Jamalian and several other San Francisco business owners whose dispensaries or warehouses have been robbed – including a location of Stiiizy, where armed assailants kidnapped an employee and drove him across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and back before forcing him to open locked areas – will make a public appeal for better law enforcement response as well as attention from elected officials.

If politicians prioritized defending marijuana stores, police response times would improve, said Wesley Hein, president of the Cannabis Distribution Association, which advocates for the 1,000-plus licensed distributors in California.

“The problem is not insurmountable … but on aggregate, this has not been prioritized,” he said, noting a common complaint: Cannabis businesses do not enjoy the public services they should considering the steep taxes they pay, with local sales and excise taxes heaped upon state excise taxes.

“This industry deserves better services across the board,” he said. “This needs to be addressed now.”


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