A string of burglaries and armed robberies has cannabis shops across Portland fearful—and angry.
WW has spoken with owners or employees of 22 Portland-area dispensaries, each of which confirmed break-ins since late May. Many of the stores were hit multiple times. WW tallied 47 break-ins. That's a rate of one break-in every other night.
Three stores, according to owners, fell prey to armed robberies, including one in which employees were zip-tied and held at gunpoint.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees recreational cannabis, says the number is even higher: 60 weed stores have reported lost product over the past three months. The agency still hasn't tallied the full value of the purloined weed, but shops reported $135,000 in stolen product in June alone.
The regularity of the crimes is extraordinary and is almost certainly the largest string of burglaries in decades targeting one type of business.
Industry insiders say the severity and frequency of the break-ins have escalated in the past month.
Dispensaries tell WW multiple shops along the same streets or in the same parts of town have been hit on the same night, leading shops to believe that robbers map out their routes (see map).
"It's just rampant," says Ryon Nicholson, co-owner of a Portland-based cannabis wholesale company. "We're under siege pretty much."
It's not clear what's fueling the spate of weed thefts, but cannabis shop owners say the response by Portland police has been sluggish.
"We never hold our breath on them catching anyone," says Johnny Reece, who owns Attis Trading Company in the Burlingame neighborhood. On Aug. 9, three of his employees were held at gunpoint and zip-tied as three robbers plundered his store.
Some suspect a correlation between the robberies and fewer police patrolling due to protests downtown.
"It seems like too much of a coincidence to be truly a coincidence," says Mike Getlin, who owns Old Apple Farm, a cannabis farm in Oregon City. "You know that police departments are straining to keep people in check by the federal courthouse, so robbing a place across town seems like a good opportunity, I guess."
In a possible sign of how stretched the police are, the bureau told WW it could not comment by press deadline. Public information officer Melissa Newhard said detectives had not responded to a request for updates. "I am sure they are inundated with follow-up and other requests," Newhard said.
She added that police had responded to two dispensary break-ins Aug. 17, "one of which resulted in two juvenile suspects identified and detained."
Cannabis has been one of the few industries spared economic turmoil since the onset of the pandemic. When Gov. Kate Brown shut down bars, restaurants and gyms in March, she allowed cannabis stores to remain open.
OLCC data shows cannabis sales have gone up more than 20% since March.
Joe Russo, who co-owns a cannabis distribution company, says the sales increase makes sense. People are working less and many are getting generous unemployment benefits.
"It makes sense that recreational vices are picking up," Russo says.
The first break-ins happened on the morning of May 30, in the hours after rioters set fire to the Multnomah County Justice Center. "You could drive down Belmont and Hawthorne, and it was just broken glass everywhere," says Rick Vranish, marketing director at Tetra Cannabis on Southeast Belmont Street, who saw widespread damage after his and several other shops were hit June 1.
Widespread looting stopped but the plundering of weed stores continued.
Camille Farrell manages Amberlight Cannabis House in the Richmond neighborhood. Just past 3 am on July 26, the shop's alarm linked to Farrell's iPhone started to blare. She didn't wake up. When she got to her shop at 8:30 that morning, the alarms were still going off, and the police had just responded.
According to security camera footage Farrell watched that captured the burglary, four young men in hoods and masks smashed the glass door with rocks and broke into the safes and fridges holding product. For nearly 25 minutes, they ran in and out of the shop taking loads of goods to a vehicle—about $16,000 worth of oils, extracts and glassware.
"It seems they're aware that police don't have quick response times," Farrell says. "The alarm was going off the entire time." The same group attempted to hit Amberlight again just two weeks later.
WW spoke with 10 other dispensaries that described young men using rocks to shatter glass windows and doors. They kicked in fridges, smashed display cases, grabbed whatever was handy, then ran out.
Then, in late July, the break-ins started getting more severe. On Aug. 9, three employees at Johnny Reece's shop in Southwest were zip-tied and held at gunpoint while one of the employees was dragged 20 feet to the back office where she was ordered to open the cash safe.
"I'm just heartbroken. We never want anyone to have to go through that. I was furious," Reece says. "I wanted to go hunt the guy down by myself."
The armed robbers stole $30,000 in cash and $5,000 worth of flower—the hardest-hit shop in terms of cash stolen that WW spoke with.
However, five other dispensaries tell WW their total monetary losses—including product stolen and damage done to the store—exceeded $20,000.
Portland Extracts, a dispensary and processing lab in the Division Clinton neighborhood, was broken into Aug. 3, and owner Jordan Jacobsen tells WW nearly $200,000 worth of product was stolen by five young men who smashed a window with a rock to enter.
"It was like a shopping spree," says Jacobsen. "They brought their own bags."
More than a dozen shops tell WW they provided security camera footage to police officers from the burglaries.
Reece wants police to make the weed-stealing spree a higher priority. "We're not drug dealers," he says. "We're a legal business just like Taco Bell across the street."