Crosstown partnered on this story with radio station KCRW and reporter Mary Carreón.
On June 5, 2022, the owner of the Eagle Rock cannabis shop Cornerstone Wellness arrived at his business to find a distressing sight. The night before, thieves had squeezed through a takeout window. Surveillance video showed that 15 minutes later, they walked away with thousands of dollars worth of product. They also shattered the windows and doors.
The damage was estimated at $40,000 and repairs took six weeks. The business had been victimized before, but never to this degree, said the owner, who asked not to be identified out of concern of being recognized and targeted again.
It was not an isolated incident. Crimes at licensed Los Angeles cannabis shops have risen sharply in 2023. In the second quarter, there were 73 crime reports, according to publicly available Los Angeles Police Department data. That is up 70% from the same period in 2022. The third quarter count this year was 34 crimes.
In the first nine months of 2023, there were 151 crime reports at Los Angeles medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries, putting the city on pace to record the highest number of incidents ever at these businesses. The annual high is the 165 crimes recorded last year.
In some ways, the increase in incidents at cannabis businesses mirrors the overall rise in retail crime. Shoplifting has soared in Los Angeles this year, and area department stores have become destinations for thieves, including high-profile “flash mob” attacks. Even Rick Caruso’s tourist and shopping destination The Grove has seen an unprecedented number of thefts.
The response has been multi-faceted. Some operators have shut down stores entirely. A bevy of local law enforcement and political leaders have formed an Organized Retail Crimes Task Force. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that $267 million will be distributed to 55 police agencies across California to combat organized retail theft. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department received $15.6 million.
Still, cannabis outlets are unique.
Money and product
There is a reason thieves target cannabis dispensaries: a perception that they are flush with cash. Although cannabis is legal in California, it remains outlawed federally, and many cannabis companies have trouble opening bank accounts.
That means many shops deal primarily in cash, which can attract criminal activity, said United Cannabis Chamber of Commerce Vice President Hirsh Jain. Thieves often pocket the money and turn stolen product over on the black market and at illicit shops.
The problem may be much greater than it appears. For every licensed and regulated shop, there may be four black-market or unlicensed businesses, Jain estimated. Break-ins and other incidents at unlicensed stores are usually kept quiet, he said.
“Someone who is operating an unlicensed store is far less likely to call the police,” Jain said. “There’s probably tons of things that happen there that we don’t know about.”
As crimes at cannabis businesses become more frequent, Jain said he has noticed a pattern of long response times and limited follow-up from police. The sentiment was echoed by the Cornerstone owner, who maintained that despite ample evidence left at the scene—including the thieves’ blood, phones, masks, earbuds, and camera footage of their faces and vehicle—the offenders haven’t been caught.
“It doesn’t seem like anyone does anything, whether it’s because there’s no resource or whether there’s no appetite for it, or they just still have the attitude that we’re ‘just weed people,’” he said.
In an email, LAPD Capt. Ahmad Zarekani said the department’s slower response times are due, in part, to a shrinking staff. The department currently has 8,971 sworn personnel. Several years ago, the figure was over 10,000.
Officers don’t discriminate against cannabis businesses, Zarekani said, but they do prioritize investigating violent crimes over property crimes. They also place higher priority on cases with evidence.
Police solve crimes at cannabis shops and other locations at a similar rate. From Jan. 1, 2018–Aug. 30, 2023, there were 539 reports of robberies and burglaries at medical and retail cannabis businesses; LAPD data show about 83% have a continuing investigation, meaning no one has been arrested or the crime has not otherwise been closed. In that same period, there were just over 132,000 robberies and burglaries reported citywide, 84% of which have a continuing investigation.
Crimes and areas
According to police data, 61% of the crime reports at medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries in the city in the first nine months of 2023 were for burglary or attempted burglary, where someone breaks in and takes something of value. There were 19 robberies, in which something is taken from a victim by threat or force (there was also one report of attempted robbery).
Cannabis retailers, like all small businesses, suffer when significant swaths of their product and cash are taken. Jain said a number of shops across California were forced to shut down after robberies left them struggling financially.
Repair and recovery is a whole other story. Frequent break-ins and attempted robberies drive up insurance premiums for store owners already struggling to find companies to cover them.
Crime is also a familiar topic for the owner of a Silver Lake dispensary, who agreed to be identified only by initials, TJ, so as not to be targeted again by thieves.
In December, TJ’s business was burglarized. Surveillance video showed the assailants using four-by-fours and crowbars to break the locks. Thieves stole cannabis products from the store and caused about $10,000 in damage.
TJ has been in the cannabis business for 18 years—12 before legalization in California. The situation is better now, he said, because he can call the police when break-ins happen.
TJ suspects that the theft—like many in the industry, he believes—was an inside job. His security team “just happened to be on break,” TJ said, and cameras that were usually on were turned off.
Christopher Eggers, who runs a cannabis security company, helps shop owners prevent inside jobs by teaching them to thoroughly vet potential employees and put safeguards in place to protect sensitive information.
Dispensary owners across Los Angeles are, like other retailers, responding to the more frequent thefts by investing in fortress-like security. Some shops hire full-time, armed guards.
Having security measures in place, Eggers said, can help shop owners ensure their doors remain open in the long run.
“Security is not something that makes a business money,” he said. Rather, “It’s something that helps the business survive if there’s an incident.”
The United Cannabis Chamber of Commerce helps cannabis business owners with their security practices, including advice on cash pickup and remote alarm systems. Jain noted that is the modern reality of running such an operation.
“Businesses are investing so much money to protect themselves,” he said, “yet all it means is that robberies will continue and that stores will have to spend even more money.”
LAPD data only reflects crimes that are reported to the department, not how many crimes actually occurred. In making our calculations, we rely on the data the LAPD makes publicly available. LAPD may update past crime reports with new information, or recategorize past reports. Those revised reports do not always automatically become part of the public database.
Have questions about our data or want to know more? Write to us at email@example.com.