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James Victor heard his phone buzz around 3 a.m. on Nov. 21. Bay Alarm was on the line—someone had tripped the alarm at his retail cannabis business, James Henry SF. Victor called Oakland police dispatch to report a burglary in progress. It was the first of several calls.
Over the next four hours, he and his co-founder, John Henry, helplessly watched a security camera live feed as three separate groups of burglars entered their building on Embarcadero. Around 6:55 a.m., Henry saw thieves pry open a metal cage and drag out their safe.
Oakland police eventually arrived at 7:30 a.m., Victor and Henry told The Oaklandside.
“I was just sitting there with this blank look on my face, like are you fucking kidding me right now?” Henry said. “Our space was just ransacked.”
This was no random criminal act. It was part of another mass burglary spree of Bay Area businesses by what authorities describe as organized crews targeting everything from shopping malls to high-end stores to pharmacies.
Although Oakland burglaries were down 11% in 2021 compared to the five-year average, and robberies were flat at about 3% above average, the targeting of cannabis businesses appears to be a growing trend.
James Henry SF was one of about 20 cannabis shops targeted over a weekend in late November, the latest wave of burglaries and robberies hitting the local industry since summer 2020.
Some of the businesses have been repeat targets, and some of the encounters have resulted in shootouts between suspects and armed security guards and police officers. These brazen acts have put business owners on edge and renewed calls for the Oakland Police Department to better protect the city’s green zones—areas where cannabis retail, cultivation, and manufacturing is encouraged.
“We definitely feel unsafe. I’m totally frustrated with OPD,” said Victor, who claimed an officer advised one of his colleagues to arm themselves for protection. “This is not the business we are in. People talk about cannabis as if we are drug dealers. They don’t respect it as a real business. You are not going into Louis Vuitton and saying that.”
Coordinated attacks by caravans of burglars first showed up in the Bay Area in the summer of 2020, with dozens of cars roaming through East Bay cities along Interstate 880, and as far away as Solano County, striking multiple locations sometimes simultaneously. They appear timed on nights where police are monitoring protests, or are expecting demonstrations or some other kind of distraction like an election.
During the summer of 2020, several cannabis businesses were targeted during protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin. Oakland police arrested people attempting to break into about a dozen different cannabis businesses over a four-day period from May 29 to June 1, 2020, but few of the department’s officers were available because of massive demonstrations happening downtown.
More burglaries and robberies happened on the night of the 2020 Presidential Election, even as a protest downtown never materialized. A chaotic confrontation in East Oakland, where officers interrupted an attempted burglary and robbery of a cannabis grow inside a building on 92nd Avenue ended in a police officer fatally shooting a man suspected of running over officers while trying to flee.
The latest spree happened on a similarly busy weekend, perhaps timed with the expectation that hundreds would gather downtown to protest the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse.
Burglars hit several cannabis businesses over a 52-hour span. The first of the break-ins was reported at 11:15 p.m. on Nov. 20, a Friday evening. Oakland dispatchers took the final burglary call at 3:26 a.m. early Monday. In all 19 incidents were reported, Oakland police Lt. Jeff Thomason told members of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission at a Dec. 2 meeting.
Four of the break-ins involved armed suspects, including one ending with suspects shooting at police officers after fleeing from an unlicensed facility in the 8100 block of MacArthur Boulevard, where at least 10 people arrived in several cars to burglarize the building. One man who was found with a bag of marijuana was arrested, but the gunman and several others escaped. Thomason said police arrested seven others suspected of burglarizing another facility.
Debby Goldsberry, the CEO of Magnolia Wellness, told the Cannabis Regulatory Commission on Dec. 2 that progress was made after meetings last year between operators, Oakland police, and elected officials to discuss how to better protect and more promptly respond to crimes reported at dispensaries and other marijuana businesses.
The cannabis industry has deep roots in Oakland and is integral to the city’s economy today. Oakland established the nation’s first permitting process for medical cannabis dispensaries in 2004. The local sector has only grown over the past few decades, with the city issuing 408 new business permits since the spring 2017, when Oakland enacted an equity permit program to address disparities in the industry by prioritizing residents who were victims of the war on drugs. In 2020, combined total gross receipts from 195 licensed cannabis businesses was more than $167 million, according to the city.
Despite earlier assurances from the Oakland Police Department to better coordinate with operators, multiple cannabis businesses owners said they received no warning of the roaming caravans, but instead got an email from Oakland police that said there was no known threat to the city’s cannabis sector.
“All of the fixes that were in place to help us have been dropped and when this thing happened again we were totally unprepared,” said Goldsberry, whose business has been one of several repeatedly robbed or burglarized.
In statements before the cannabis commission last month, police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said officers were overwhelmed that weekend, during which police officers shot and killed a person suspected of carjacking, investigated the homicide of a 17-year-old, and responded to multiple sideshows.
The chief told commissioners that OPD has assigned a full-time officer to work with the cannabis industry, but this role was cut in December 2020. Armstrong said he has asked the city administration to allow the officer to work half-time in that role. OPD has assigned two detectives to investigate the break-ins, Armstrong said, and in the future will deploy tactical teams in the green zones.
“We did the best we could to manage a problem that not only Oakland faced but the entire Bay Area,” Armstrong said.
At a press conference last month, Amber Senter, CEO of EquityWorks, and other cannabis operators, called on the city to offer the businesses tax relief for two years to help businesses recover from recent robberies. Senter, whose incubator houses equity permit holders, told The Oaklandside most businesses cannot afford security guards, and some have struggled to reopen. Senter estimates the cannabis industry lost an estimated $5 million in inventory; although Senter’s business was broken into, nothing was taken.
In 2020, Oakland created a new tiered tax system and the largest cannabis businesses now pay 9.5% taxes for their non-medical business. Last year, the city estimated collecting $13.7 million in cannabis business tax revenue.
“I feel like we are just getting choked out here,” Senter said. “We have these insanely high taxes, our businesses are under attack, and we have no support, no help.”
The city is exploring ways to help affected operators and other small business owners in East Oakland. Before breaking for the holidays, the City Council voted to direct the city administration to research giving tax rebates and deferring or waiving city loans for impacted businesses, as well as using the city’s facade and tenant improvement programs to help fortify dispensaries and other cannabis operations.
James Anthony, an attorney who chairs the cannabis business group Oakland Citizens for Equity and Prosperity, fears the thefts have only weakened permitted businesses and strengthened the underground market, which can sell the stolen marijuana at discounted prices.
“We are seeing a movement in the state for a tax strike or amnesty. The whole legal industry is failing, it’s going to collapse, it can’t compete with the underground industry which is thriving,” Anthony said.
Victor and Henry, who estimated their losses at $400,000, agreed.
“Part of the problem is when you cripple the legal market or when operators like us have to raise the cost of our product, what it does is drive up the price of the product on the shelves and makes it more attractive for consumers to go back to traditional sources,” Henry said.