Dispensaries face security challenges in the wake of several robberies

A handful of robberies of marijuana dispensaries in Toronto and other Canadian cities over the past several months has left some employees and owners concerned about their safety

A handful of robberies of marijuana dispensaries in Toronto and other Canadian cities over the past several months has left some employees and owners concerned about their safety, and not always comfortable going to the police. Police, on the other hand, say that protecting the public requires cooperation from owners, who need to not put their employees in harm’s way.

A lack of proper security protocol, as well as a fear of going to the police, have left the issue ripe for some criminals. While grow-rips and robberies are not uncommon in the black market, as cannabis stores become more common and more public in their approach, the issue itself becomes more public.

Most recently, on January 14, police responded to a call at The Green Leaf marijuana dispensary at 2145 Danforth Ave. According to the police report, three masked men entered the premises, one armed, and took control of three store employees, ordering them onto the ground.

During the course of the robbery the gun was fired and one employee was reportedly pistol whipped. The three men escape with cash.

On Dec. 21, masked robbers reportedly entered Canna Clinic on Ossington Ave. and took all the cash and marijuana on the premises. According to one customer, some eight employees and 20 customers were ordered on the ground by masked robbers.

In August, two men were charged after a dispensary in Toronto was robbed with a start pistol that police say resembled a 38 revolver. Cash and marijuana were taken from the premises.

Last October in Ottawa, a dispensary was allegedly crashed into by a vehicle, although no cash or marijuana was stolen.

In the same month in Vancouver, armed robbers were caught on video holding up a Stressed and Depressed dispensary. One man was later arrested in relation to the robbery; full video of the incident can be found here. In May 2015, someone broke into the same store store by smashing a van through its front window.

In Surrey, BC, employees who reported a robbery were arrested by the police last September.

An employee at the WeeMedical store, Nicholas Thompson, told CBC at the time that at first the police were interested in the robbery, but then called him back and arrested him, as well.

“I got a call that the store was robbed and I raced down. Everything was fine. We called the police. They showed up. They were interested in everything.”

“The police called me back to give a statement. As soon as I pulled up, they said I was under arrest for trafficking marijuana through the dispensary,” Thompson said.

After the Dec 21 robbery at the Toronto Canna Clinic, Lawyer Paul Lewin told the Star that he felt the ongoing raids of illegal dispensaries create a situation where owners and employees don’t want to report crimes for fear of also being charged by police.

“It’s kind of like we’re saying you don’t deserve the protection of society because you’re involved with a dispensary. That’s the effect of it,” Lewin said.

“It’s important that every dispensary is operating at the same level (of security) and it’s publicly known, because it’s supposed to operate as a dissuasion tactic more than anything, and if the public does not know that there’s a common set of security standards, then of course the dissuasion doesn’t work. It’s all about a common core of security standards that are very publicly known, that protect staff, patients and the public at large” – Dieter MacPherson, advisor on Vancouver and Victoria BC’s dispensary regulations

Toronto Police have been targeting dispensaries since May of last year as part of their Project Claudia.

Toronto Police, however, say the issue is clear cut: dispensaries are not legal, owners of dispensaries are putting their employees at risk by running these illegal business in the first place, and anyone who doesn’t report a crime to police is further endangering the public.

“I don’t accept this fear of arrest for trafficking,” says Mark Pugash, Director, Unit Commander, Corporate Communications, Toronto Police Services. “I think that’s an excuse, not a reason. These locations are quite overt, no effort is made to hide them… I simply don’t buy that.”

“There was a lawyer in Toronto suggesting that by enforcing the law we were actually endangering people, and I think that’s a perverse argument.”

“Dispensaries are illegal. They will go to great lengths to try to convince people there’s a grey area in the law. There is no grey area, whatsoever. They are illegal.”

“Anyone who doesn’t report a crime, in particular the sort of ones we’ve seen, and let’s not put too fine a point on it, if they don’t come forward, they’re enabling these people to further crimes. I think society generally has a fairly obvious interest in law enforcement catching and putting people before the courts people who are apparently using guns to pistol whip people and to rob them.”

RCMP outside a Da Kine dispensary in Surrey BC in 2016. Image via Lift News.

As for what steps employees can take, Pugash says, again, the responsibility lies with the owners.

“I don’t think this is an issue of what steps employees or customers should take, I think this is an issue for the owners. The owners, by the way, are very rarely are around when warrants are executed, so the people who get arrested and charged are the employees who work there. The owners tend to be at a safe distance.”

Ehrin Richardson,  the Vice President of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) and the VP of the Sunrise Wellness Foundation, a Vancouver based, nonprofit dispensary, agrees that owners and operators have a duty to protect staff and customers.

“I think first and foremost,” says Richardson, “is that the dispensary operators need to take responsibility in informing all staff of the potential of armed robbery, violence in the workplace, that sort of thing. But more importantly, how to deal with a situation whereby you have armed assailants who are demanding money or product or whatever the case may be.”

“I think that’s first and foremost, because a lot of times dispensaries have staff who are just completely unaware of the potential threat. I think that’s the first step, training and informing staff.”

“The second step,” he continues, “is to engage a risk mitigation firm to help them to secure their premises and to ensure that they are not the most attractive target for a robbery.”

In British Columbia, Victoria and Vancouver, who have both passed regulations to manage dispensaries, have dictated certain security requirements, including a security plan, alarm system, video surveillance with 21 day video retention, the removal of cash and valuables off premises when the store is closed, and a requirement of at least two staff on duty at all times.

Both these cities’ regulations were formed with input from numerous stakeholders, including CAMCD.

“If you’re the owner/operator of a dispensary in Canada,” says Richardson, “you need to take responsibility for everything that’s going on at your store. If you’re getting robbed or you’re getting raided, it shouldn’t be the staff who are the ones being charged. You should be the one on the scene, dealing with and managing the aftermath of a robbery and assisting employees who may be traumatized from the experience.

“The other side is that the onus is on the owner to engage with the police and to be proactive with security measures. Unfortunately it seems like the police have taken a certain stance there in Toronto, but I would encourage dispensary owners to continue to engage with law enforcement and to continue to engage with the city of Toronto to let them know you’re trying your best to operate in a responsible manner.”

David Hyde, a security and risk management specialist who has worked with numerous licensed producers in Canada and abroad to establish security systems that adhere to the various jurisdictions’ standards, says there are steps business owners could be taking to protect their business, employees and customers.

“Most storefront dispensaries are viewed as attractive targets for crime due to what they contain (large volume of untraceable cannabis in various forms, large amounts of cash), their status under the law (they exist precariously in a legal sense which means that crime is often not reported to police) and the overall poor level of protection across the dispensary landscape.”

Hyde points out many US states and even Canadian cities like Victoria and Vancouver have mandated security requirements for dispensaries, often including things like an alarm system, panic buttons, commercial grade locks on doors, extensive 24 hour video surveillance, restricted access points, more effective vaults for cash and cannabis, security staff, and external lighting.

Dieter MacPherson, the director at CAMCD and an advisor on both Vancouver and Victoria’s regulations, says the rules surrounding security protocol exist to protect the business and general public, and to communicate to potential criminals that dispensaries are not easy targets.

“It’s important that every dispensary is operating at the same level (of security) and it’s publicly known,” says MacPherson, “because it’s supposed to operate as a dissuasion tactic more than anything, and if the public does not know that there’s a common set of security standards, then of course the dissuasion doesn’t work. It’s all about a common core of security standards that are very publicly known, that protect staff, patients, and the public at large”

Featured image via Jacquie Miller

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