In the days before California legalized adult-use cannabis sales, gun-toting robbers preyed on the quasi-legal dispensaries of Los Angeles. They seemed ready and willing to pull the trigger, knowing that shops often had ample cash and product guarded by armed security. And because City Hall at the time didn’t recognize any of the stores as fully lawful, operators were often hesitant to dial 911.
In a one-week span in the summer of 2010 four dispensary employees, including two security guards, were shot in a string of robberies in the city of Los Angeles. In one of the heists, Matthew Benjamin Butcher, the 27-year-old son of Los Angeles labor leader Julie Butcher, was slain.
Of the 23 robberies at cannabis storefronts in the city this year, all but three were at unlicensed facilities.
Many in the cannabis community have argued that full retail licensing and regulation would help solve the problem. But data from the city of Los Angeles show that the number of reported crime incidents connected to retail cannabis stores doubled between 2010 and 2018. Legalization seems to have calmed the crime problem—but only for legal stores.
The trend appears in an analysis of Los Angeles Police Department data by the USC Annenberg School for Journalism’s Crosstown Project and its founder, journalism Professor Gabriel Kahn. A copy was shared with Leafly. It shows that reports of crime associated with cannabis storefronts reached a nine-year high in 2018, with 148 incidents reported. In 2010 the figure was 72.
“There’s been a rash of robberies,” said Virgil Grant, owner of LA’s three California Cannabis dispensaries. “For the street element, it’s the new and easiest thing to hit. It’s the place of least resistance.”
The vast majority of shops targeted have been unlicensed, according to LAPD Det. Vito Ceccia, who’s part of the department’s Cannabis Support Unit.
“We’re still seeing unlicensed ones as bigger targets,” Ceccia said. “Sometimes they don’t want to report it because they don’t want to be on our radar.”
LA: A longtime epicenter of illegal cannabis activity
In the years leading up to California’s 2016 vote to legalize adult-use cannabis, when neighborhood groups were clamoring for LA’s hundreds of illegal shops to be shut down, a key argument by critics was that they attracted crime. But data at the time showed the opposite. A number of research papers, including a 2017 look at crime around dispensaries published by the Journal of Urban Economics, concluded that the shops actually deterred crime. In fact, that study found that crime actually increased when illegal storefronts were shut down.
Despite the advent of legal sales, Los Angeles today is still home to dozens of unlicensed retailers selling illicit products. And compared to licensed shops, the illegal stores are prime targets for crime. Robbers know that workers aren’t likely to call 911, said Vito of the LAPD.
“We’ve seen a huge decrease in the amount of crime to legal entities. We’re happy about that part.”
State-regulated cannabis storefronts, meanwhile, are required to have security guards and often keep cash in safes. Employees aren’t afraid to call police if a problem arises.
But alongside licensed businesses, fly-by-night storefronts have remained. They’ve taken advantage of the city’s cap on the number of licenses, popping up in communities that will support the extra business. What’s more, they often forego state and local taxes that can be upward of 25%, allowing them to attract cost-conscious customers.
“There are people who take those risks, who go to speakeasies,” said LA dispensary owner Jerred Kiloh, president of the United Cannabis Business Association (UCBA). “It’s part of the illegal subculture in L.A.”
So far this year, of the 23 robberies at cannabis storefronts in the city, all but three were at unlicensed facilities, the LAPD’s Ceccia said. “A majority of property crimes, burglaries, and robberies are still occurring at unlicensed locations.”
That puts consumers in danger, Kiloh said. “The people shopping at illegal dispensaries are at risk.”
Has legalization increased reporting?
Despite the uptick in reports of crime, it appears that cannabis businesses in Los Angeles may actually safer today—so long as they’re legal.
Another explanation for the increase in crime could be that legitimate cannabis sellers now feel empowered to call on law enforcement without risk of having their businesses shut down.
“I think the fact that now that people can call the police they’re getting more calls,” said Grant, the owner of California Cannabis. “Nobody wanted the police to come out before.”
Of the 65 legal stores in Los Angeles that UCBA represents, Kiloh said, he can’t think of one that’s been robbed in the past year or so.
During the last 18 months, police and city regulators have cracked down on illicit shops, managing to reduce their numbers from 400 to 140.
“All these cameras, guards, and police able to come to our aid as license holders” have made a difference, he said. “We’ve seen a huge decrease in the amount of crime to legal entities. We’re happy about that part.”
Crosstown’s dispensary crime analysis applies to all categories of crime, not just robberies. The data, which cover 2010 through 2018, show that crime reports were highest in Van Nuys, which saw 55 reports over the nine-year span, and in Downtown LA, which saw 50.
Some observers believe the actual crime numbers could be higher—especially at illegal stores—because rogue operators still fear reporting issues to law enforcement. “There’s probably two or three times as many as these things happening going unreported,” Kiloh estimated.
The LAPD says it’s getting a handle on the problem.
During the last 18 months, police and city regulators have cracked down on illicit shops, Ceccia said, managing to reduce their numbers from 400 to 140—which is now fewer than the 187 licensed storefronts. That’s still too many illegal shops, he added.
“There’s still an ample number of unlicensed places to target,” Ceccia said. “But we’re making it more and more difficult for them to operate.”