One thief, posing as a delivery man, pulled a can of bear mace on employees and ransacked their marijuana shop, fleeing in a defensive cloud of "ultra-pepper" spray. Another opened the wall of a dispensary with an ax and attacked the store's safe with a circular saw. Still another stuck to the basics. He kicked in the front door and pointed his gun at the counterman. An accomplice kicked in the back door and filled a duffel bag with more than $10,000 worth of high-quality cannabis.
For weeks now, the Mile High state has allowed the sale of recreational pot to adults, and so far the Rockies still stand. But crimes like the ones above, all of which occurred in Colorado in the last six months, have produced an acid-drip of anxiety in the industry, highlighting the dangers faced by those hoping to drag America's most popular illegal drug into the light. Because marijuana remains banned by Congress, banks and security firms deny services to most dispensaries. That leaves them cash-based and vulnerable, a magnet for criminals who like the idea of unguarded counting rooms and shelves lined with lucrative horticulture.
"Everyone in the industry is having nightmares," says Michael Elliot, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a powerful young lobby in Colorado. "You hit a 7-Eleven, you'll get 20 bucks. You hit a dispensary, you'll get $300,000 on a good day," adds Mitch Morrissey, District Attorney for Denver. "It's only a matter of time before someone gets shot."
Since 2010, the new pot barons have been required to install alarms and surveillance cameras, and most secure all cash and retail pot in a floor-bolted safe overnight. That helps limit losses, but the thieves keep coming. They throw bricks through windows, and tunnel under floors. One team tore away the locks on a grow house with a set of chains and a Subaru Outback. Another crashed an Audi through a warehouse door.
At first, most of the heists were softened by a kind of likable idiocy. Owners joked about the hapless fellow who zip-lined through an opening in a greenhouse roof, then lacked the oomph to climb his way out. Or the thief who kicked into an apartment above a pot shop, only to be chased off by the apartment's surprised owner, a member of the Denver Nuggets. Or the team that crowbarred into a dispensary in 2012, leaving with a broken scale and $8 from a "karma jar" on the counter.
More recently, however, the crimes have sent a forked bolt of fear through the industry. Last summer, for example, a trio of gunmen "demanded Weed" from the workers at a dispensary called 420 Wellness, according to documents provided by the district attorney's office. As two of the gunmen filled "several trash bags" with award-winning marijuana, the third leapt over the counter and took a female employee by the elbow, leading her around the shop as a human insurance policy. Police caught up with that squad soon after they fled the scene, charging the ringleader with aggravated robbery and kidnapping.
But over the next six weeks, a different team of burglars hit at least eight dispensaries, and a third team is still on the loose after a stick-up at New Age Wellness in nearby Boulder County. Moments after closing time, two men dressed in baby-blue ski-masks burst in, pointed guns, and cleaned out the little mountain depot. "It's an epidemic," says one of the employees, who declined to give his name for safety reasons. "Everything is a lot tighter now. It isn't so homey anymore."
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