Armed Robbers Continue to Terrorize Portland’s Cannabis Retailers

Largely a cash business with a product that is easy to fence, weed shops have long been perceived as easy targets for thieves.

The first time Rick Dudley’s cannabis shop was ransacked by armed robbers, in November 2020, his insurance company dropped him.

The second time, last month, he shut down his Centennial neighborhood store for good. Thieves made off with the contents of the safe after tackling one of the employees. They held the other at gunpoint in the restroom. After a decade in business, Dudley closed Exodus Wellness Center.

“The robbers nowadays do not care,” Dudley says. “Nobody gets caught.”

Last year, WW took note of a new and troubling phenomenon: Crime at cannabis shops exploded during the pandemic, culminating in the killing of a North Portland budtender in late 2020 (“Killer Weed,” March 3, 2021).

The industry has been on high alert ever since. Shops have amped up security and now hold less cash on hand in hopes of dispelling the widespread perception that they’re easy marks.

Law enforcement, too, has taken notice. The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office assigned a prosecutor to specialize in such cases.

But the problem has not gone away. Instead, armed robberies of weed shops have become a routine feature of Portland summers—as expected as 100-degree heat waves, wildfire smoke, and gunfire in the streets.

There have been 12 armed robberies of cannabis retailers in the first half of 2022, outpacing the number for the same period in both prior years, according to data provided by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

Earlier this month, the St. Johns cannabis shop Best Buds suffered a robbery so violent that it, again, sent shockwaves through the industry. Thieves pistol-whipped one employee and shot at another as he emerged from the restroom with his hands up.

“There isn’t a cannabis retailer in the Portland area that I’ve talked to where the threat of robbery is not a constant and persistent fear,” says Jesse Bontecou, co-director of the Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association.

The reason is no mystery: Congress limits cannabis sellers’ ability to accept credit cards, leaving them sitting on piles of cash that bandits know are there.

Robberies of all types have been up in Portland the past three years, but the cannabis industry has been hit particularly hard. Largely a cash business with a product that is easy to fence, cannabis shops have long been perceived as easy targets for thieves.

And business has been tough in recent months. Farms have overproduced and demand has slackened (“Burned Out,” WW, July 13). With margins slim, many store owners say they can’t afford to implement more sophisticated security measures like around-the-clock guards. Instead, they rely on silent alarms and security cameras—which are of little use when the thieves grab and go, faces masked, before police arrive.

That is what happened at Best Buds in St. Johns on July 11. Three men in hoodies and masks pulled a gun on the shop’s two employees, knocked one of them down, and fired at the other. They walked out with their arms full of product.

The store’s owner, Paul Pedreira, shared the footage with KOIN-TV last week, and news spread that yet another budtender had been attacked.

Adrienne Garcia, who owns Pakalolo on Southeast Holgate Boulevard, told WW she was thinking of closing her shop and “going back to Detroit.”

She admitted she was kidding, but only “kind of.” In 2021, the number of homicides in Portland increased 65%. In Detroit, it fell.

Garcia stopped allowing customers inside her store as a health precaution early in the pandemic. Thanks to the ongoing violence, it’s now a permanent security measure.

“I can’t risk having my employees pistol-whipped, no way,” Garcia says.

The Portland Police Bureau has just six detectives assigned to investigate all felony robberies in the city, a police spokesperson tells WW.

Pot-shop stickups have become so prevalent that the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office assigned a prosecutor to field tips from business owners and help work their cases.

That prosecutor, deputy district attorney Mariel Mota, tells WW she pulls police reports and follows up on leads that detectives haven’t had time to track down.

Around 10 of her current cases involve robberies of cannabis shops, she says, and they’re not easy cases to close.

“You’re dealing with situations where there’s no description from the witness, there’s no license plate, there’s no fingerprints,” she says.

Still, detectives have gotten breaks. Two prominent crews were arrested last year.

On New Year’s Day 2021, a customer walked in on four men stuffing garbage bags full of cannabis at Collective Awakenings. The customer fled, but not before taking a photo of the thieves’ getaway car, a gray Volvo.

Cops tracked it down that afternoon and arrested five men, including Daniel Mugisha, then 20, who was later charged with killing 44-year-old budtender Michael Arthur in another robbery the year before.

Three months later, in March, a masked man pulled a gun at Natural Wonders dispensary while an accomplice held down the clerk by his neck and emptied the till. They nearly got away, until their getaway driver ran a stop sign and crashed into another vehicle—directly in front of an off-duty cop.

It turned out the crew was wanted for similar robberies in Washington, too, Mota says.

While Mota and police try to close cases, hopes of preventing robberies largely hinge on reducing two causes: gun violence and registers full of cash.

Last week, Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a state of emergency to address gun violence sweeping the city. Part of his plan, Safer Summer PDX, involves identifying people who are at the greatest risk of committing a violent crime and offering them life coaches and other services.

When pressed by WW for details of how the plan would address armed robberies of cannabis stores, Wheeler’s spokesman released a statement:

“Our intent is to reduce gun violence in as many ways as possible. In addition to the targeted outreach, Safer Summer PDX will also support investments in environmental design and prosocial events for youth and the broader community to effect wider impacts.”

Meanwhile, Oregon’s congressional delegation is working on addressing the other underlying cause: cash. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley has introduced a bill that would prohibit federal regulators from going after banks for doing business with the cannabis industry.

And, just last week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced long-awaited legislation to decriminalize pot at the federal level.

That bill has little chance of becoming law. Several Democratic senators oppose the idea. Still, Wyden “is committed over the next five months-plus to advancing cannabis legislation as far as it can go,” his spokesman says.

This will be too late for Best Buds’ Pedreira, who is irate that his employees had to go through the trauma of being robbed at gunpoint. He blames city leaders, who he says have failed to hold criminals responsible. He pays a 20% tax on the product he sells, and he wonders why all of that money isn’t improving public safety.

And he’s contemplating arming himself.

“If the city can’t protect us, we will protect ourselves,” Pedreira says. “I think what you’re going to see soon is people like that getting shot.”