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For Nearly a Year, Teenagers Have Been Robbing Portland Dispensaries. Then Somebody Shot a Budtender.

In one year, Portland-area cannabis shops reported more than half a million dollars stolen.

Michael Arthur worried he might die on the job.

For almost two years, the 44-year-old father worked as a clerk at Cured Green, a cannabis dispensary tucked in an alleyway behind a small grocery store and teriyaki shop along North Lombard Street.

Arthur's girlfriend, Chiara Ryder, says he grew increasingly fearful of a robbery. Around November, Ryder says, Arthur told her he had seen four young men scoping out the shop late at night.

He ended the conversation with a warning: If I wind up dead, these are the guys who did it.

"It raised the hairs on the back of Michael's neck. It made him afraid for his life," Ryder says. "It wasn't his words. It was the look on his face."

On Dec. 14, Arthur was shot to death in a robbery at Cured Green that scored a few jars of weed and a tip jar containing less than $20.

His death horrified the cannabis industry. It shouldn't have been a surprise.

People who've watched Portland's weed crime spree say the fatal shooting was only a matter of time.

By the time Arthur was killed, Portland cannabis shops had already been robbed, burglarized or looted 95 times in 10 months, according to data from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

That number is now up to 103, with three armed robberies so far in 2021.

By contrast, Portland liquor stores, a classic target for crime, reported just 22 burglaries and no robberies over the same time period.

In one year, Portland-area cannabis shops reported more than half a million dollars stolen—$583,000 in cash and products, gone.

Since the pandemic descended in March, weed stores in Portland have been plundered at a rate of about two per week. It's the largest crime spree targeting one kind of business in Portland memory, and carries echoes of drugstore robberies in the 1980s.

"We specifically said, 'Somebody's gonna get killed,'" says Mike Getlin, who owns a cannabis farm and founded the Oregon Industry Progress Association, a lobbying group. "I think it's going to happen again."

During a three-day period in late May and early June, 20 shops reported getting hit. In August, one shop had its ATM lugged away. In December, a weed delivery truck driver was robbed at gunpoint. One shop owner was cleaning up broken glass from a break-in earlier that night when a second gang wandered by—and burglarized his shop.

At least four budtenders have reported being zip-tied during robberies.

"I've heard of employers saying their employees are requesting that the shops don't open," says Jesse Bontecou, co-director of the Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association (ORCA). "If someone comes in and puts a gun into your face, it is a terrifying thing."

Chains are hit just as often as mom-and-pop shops. When WW called the Mr. Nice Guy dispensary in East Portland, one of four in the metro area, and asked if it was the location that had been burglarized, an employee replied drolly.

"You could be calling all of our locations," the employee said, "and you'd be calling the right one."

Court records suggest it's mostly the work of teenagers. At least seven of the suspects the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office has charged so far were juveniles. Five more were teenagers ages 18 to 19, and most were still in high school at the time of the crimes.

It's unclear whether the wave of cannabis shop robberies is a nationwide issue, or unique to Portland. WW was unable to locate comprehensive data or reporting on such incidents in other cities.

The spate of robberies is occurring amid a pandemic that has squeezed low-income Oregonians, sent alienated students home from school, and has crime soaring across the city.

It's compounded by turmoil at the Portland Police Bureau, which took a $15 million budget cut in June and then saw an exodus of more than 100 officers last year. Since that cut, Portland police have made a show of declaring to the public—and, by extension, to would-be criminals—that they are understaffed and unable to respond to calls in a timely manner.

But there's one factor that makes weed shops a more tempting target than convenience stores, liquor stores and other retailers that have stayed open during COVID: They deal almost exclusively in cash.

That means they're sitting on two things many teenagers want: cash and jars of weed.

"Something drastic needs to be done," says Anthony Johnson, a former criminal defense lawyer who organized Oregon's cannabis legalization efforts. "The notion that these businesses have to operate with a lot of cash definitely make them a target for robberies."

Oregonians used a lot of weed during the pandemic. Cannabis sales boomed: More than $100 million worth of product was sold in January 2021 alone, compared to $68.7 million the previous January.

Sales have been increasing steadily since Oregon voters legalized recreational use in 2014. Since 2016, the cannabis industry has paid more than $400 million in taxes to the state, including over $133 million in fiscal year 2020.

But federally, pot remains a Schedule I narcotic—illegal. That means dispensaries can't open bank accounts, because the banks would risk federal prosecution for holding the money from a criminal enterprise.

That prohibits cannabis shops from getting bank loans, filing for bankruptcy, storing money in a bank account, and accepting credit and debit card transactions.

"The lack of cannabis banking has created a public safety crisis. And that public safety crisis can be addressed very easily and very quickly at the federal level," says Beau Whitney, a Portland economist and business consultant for the cannabis industry.

In Oregon, a handful of credit unions will work with cannabis retailers, enabling dispensaries to deposit their proceeds, write checks and pay business expenses electronically.

But those credit unions, say dispensary owners, charge tens of thousands of dollars a year in fees. And even then, it's hard to get an account. The wait time for Maps Credit Union, the Salem-based credit union most ubiquitous among cannabis retailers in Oregon, is as long as 75 days, according to a dispensary owner who's on the waitlist.

Bret Born, who owns the Ascend dispensary on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, has been a member of the Wauna Credit Union since late 2019. It charges him a 1% fee on all cash deposits, plus $250 a month.

Before the credit union, Born says he paid for everything—rent to his landlord, utility bills to Portland General Electric, taxes to the state—in cash. Sometimes he'd lug the dollar bills to a 7-Eleven, where he could exchange them for a money order.

Born still deals with a lot of cash. Because of the credit union's deposit fee, Born says, he tries to put as little as possible in the account. That means he still pays for some expenses, including his lawyers' fees, in $20 bills.

Even if a retailer has been approved by one of the cannabis-friendly credit unions, all in-store transactions are cash only. That's because most customers have credit or debit cards affiliated with national services like Visa or Mastercard—which are subject to federal banking regulations.

A credit union account didn't keep Ascend from getting robbed.

After 8 pm on Feb. 23, three hooded and masked men entered the store. One stood guard by the door as the other two forced employees at gunpoint to lie down on the floor. They swiped all the cash from the till—$469—and cleaned all the shelves of cannabis with an estimated retail value of $15,000. (One jar of flower can sell for up to $1,500 on a street corner, and more across the Idaho border.)

Even though he lost significantly more weed than cash, Born believes the inability to do traditional banking remains the core problem.

"This is not a race issue," Born says. "This is not a cannabis issue. This is a cash issue."

Some cannabis retailers have resorted to depositing cash from sales into personal bank accounts.

That's a gamble: Frequently depositing high-dollar amounts can result in a "suspicious activity" flag. If a bank learns where the money is coming from, it can shut down an account entirely. (Two store owners who spoke to WW said they tried this strategy in the past and got caught.)

That's why John Monteleone III, owner of the Fidus cannabis shop in the Southwest Portland neighborhood of Multnomah Village, kept his money stored in two black, refrigerator-sized safes in the backroom of his dispensary.

"We figured it was the safest place," Monteleone says. "Nobody knew the codes but us."

But that didn't stop him from losing more than a quarter of a million dollars in cash and products in a matter of minutes—perhaps the largest robbery involving legal weed in state history.

It was nearing 4 pm on Aug. 21 when the co-founder and manager at Fidus stood alone in the spacious showroom where soft music from speakers echoed off the polished concrete floors and high ceilings.

Fidus doesn't appear an obvious target for crime. It's a converted suburban home, complete with a garage. It sits on Capitol Highway, the main drag of Multnomah Village, a sleepy Southwest Hills neighborhood that looks trapped in an episode of WandaVision.

At 4:17 on the hot Friday afternoon, two men walked into the store. At the counter, one of them pretended to reach for his ID—and instead sucker-punched the manager.

Surveillance footage shows one of the men then pulled a gun on the manager, forced him to strip off his shirt, shoes and socks, and pistol-whipped him. The manager lay on the floor, writhing, as one man stood over him, pointing a gun at him.

The second man walked up a short flight of stairs to the back of the shop where the safes were located; just one was open. It contained dozens of sealed bags full of weed, and the man deposited armfuls of it—with an approximate wholesale value of $130,000—into large clear plastic bags, making multiple trips out the back door, where a third man waited in a shiny black sedan, sans license plates.

The heist was going smoothly, except for one hiccup: The robbers couldn't get the second safe open. So the men dragged the manager, bleeding and thrashing, up the flight of stairs into the backroom, threatening to kill him if he didn't tell them the code.

One of the robbers finally got the second safe open. Jackpot.

It contained $125,000 in cash, $25,000 of which Monteleone was planning to pay to the state in a few weeks' time when his taxes were due. The men zip-tied the manager's wrists and ankles, leaving him facedown on the floor. The trio left the dispensary through the back door and peeled out of the parking lot.

The ordeal lasted 18 minutes.

After it was clear the men had left, the employee managed to stand up and hop to a nearby wall, pushing a panic button by collapsing onto it. He then hobbled outside and screamed for help. An ambulance showed up first; the police about 20 minutes later.

Monteleone acknowledges it wasn't ideal to have $125,000 in cash on hand. He had tried before to deposit cash periodically in a personal account. But after running about $20,000 through the account in one month, he says, the bank caught on and shut it down.

"It's really scary," Monteleone says. "You're a sitting duck."

He's given up hope police will help.

"They don't care. They don't show up," he says. "There's no policing going on. And you think the gangs aren't smart enough to notice that? It essentially allowed the criminal underbelly to take over."

Related: Court records show most of the defendants charged with raiding weed stores are teenagers.

Police arrests have led to 21 suspects being charged for cannabis burglaries and robberies—and 12 of the suspects were teenagers (see "High Crimes," page 14). But Getlin, the cannabis lobbyist, says the Police Bureau has treated dispensary robberies with indifference.

"There's such disarray in the Portland Police Bureau right now," he says, "they don't seem to have the capacity to handle it."

PPB Detective Rachel Baer says cannabis shop crimes are assigned to the Police Bureau's robbery and burglary units, which consist of a combined nine detectives.

In the summertime, Baer says, there were six detectives in her unit, and all of them were reassigned to cover protests beginning in late May. For several months, she says, those detectives "were not actively investigating any robberies." They returned to their normal assignments around Thanksgiving.

"The Portland Police Bureau and the robbery unit are not apathetic to dispensary robberies," Baer tells WW. "These robberies and the victims receive the same amount of time, care and work as any other victim of a robbery. The robbery unit has always assigned and worked cases based off of the crime committed and the available evidence, not based off of the type of business that has been victimized."

Mayor Ted Wheeler tells WW he takes the cannabis crime wave seriously.

"What started out as smash-and-grab incidents have escalated to armed robberies and at least one death of a cannabis shop employee," Wheeler says. "Robberies are terrifying for the victims. Robberies cost lives, money and confidence. The mayor's office expects the Portland Police Bureau to investigate."

Cannabis shop owners say police treat them as a low priority because they're essentially state-sanctioned drug dealers.

"I don't want to say there was no interest, but we saw nothing that could be construed as action," Getlin says. "We kept trying to call and harangue everybody and say, 'Somebody's gonna get killed.' And then, of course, Michael Arthur got shot."

Jina Yoo had bruises on her thighs for two weeks after the shooting happened. She pinched her legs over and over, she says, trying to wake herself from what felt like a nightmare.

Yoo, 46, owns Cured Green. She likes to hire regular customers. One of them was Arthur, an energetic man who wanted a break from working in homeless services.

Yoo and Arthur worked side by side five days a week in the one-room shop, a windowless room lit the color of an avocado. Their preschool-aged sons played at each other's houses. "He was my best friend," Yoo says.

Around 9:52 pm on Dec. 14, Yoo got a call from one of her husband's friends, who lives in an apartment above the shop. He had heard a gunshot.

Surveillance footage showed Arthur checking the ID of a young man through a window that connects Cured Green's showroom to its front antechamber—known in the industry as a "mantrap." When Arthur let him inside, three more men, who had been hiding around the corner of the mantrap, tried to force their way into the store, Yoo says.

Cured Green has two panic buttons to call 911, but Arthur didn't have a chance to push them. As Arthur tried to shove the door closed on the three intruders, the young man who had already entered the store shot Arthur in the back from less than a foot away.

"There was no time," Yoo says. "Not even just, 'You guys put your hands up, give me whatever you want.' They just shot him [from] right behind."

The four men ran off with a few glass jars of weed—and Arthur's tip jar, which Yoo says couldn't have had more than $20 in it. Arthur stumbled toward the corner and died near the window where he checked IDs.

Yoo says she has watched the surveillance footage of Arthur's killing about a hundred times. She also reviewed all the footage from the past 90 days, hoping the suspects' faces would show up in a previous transaction. Nothing. The cops have the footage, too. A police spokesman says they have no leads.

Ryder, Arthur's girlfriend, also reviewed the surveillance footage. "He just shot him like he was moving his arm to pass the salt. Just, bang. Done," Ryder says.

Arthur and Ryder knew each other for nearly 30 years. They have a 6-year-old son, Axel.

"Michael was an amazing, amazing person," Ryder says. "He treated people with acceptance and he treated people with kindness. He really was the best example of a father that I've ever seen."

After the killing, Yoo spent $10,000 on new surveillance cameras. She hopes state regulators will allow cannabis retailers to require customers to pull their COVID-19 masks down and look at the camera before entering the store.

At Fidus, Monteleone spent upward of $10,000 installing metal bars on the windows, purchasing additional surveillance cameras, and ensuring there are at least two employees at the store. Some of his employees are now armed and licensed for concealed carry, he says.

"It's really scary," Monteleone says. "This is where we're at until the banking opens up."

Put simply, the federal prohibition on cannabis is expensive.

Due to a War on Drugs-era provision in the IRS tax code, cannabis retailers can't take deductions for normal business expenses like rent and employee wages. As a result, the effective federal tax rate for cannabis retailers can be as high as 60% to 70%, Whitney says. In addition, they pay a 20% sales tax to the state. And because of the enhanced risk, premiums on commercial insurance for cannabis retailers can range from 30% to 50%, Whitney says.

All of those factors are the reason many retailers in Portland, despite booming sales during the pandemic, can't afford the fees for credit unions, to install additional security, or even to pay wages for more than one employee to work at a time.

"What increased robberies is, it's an existential threat to the entire industry," Whitney says. "Even with record sales, that's not really the true picture of the health of the industry. It's struggling and it's under stress to the point where a lot of the small businesses are either being robbed out of existence or taxed out of business."

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) claims he's never tried cannabis. But the bow-tie-sporting 72-year-old remains its most committed advocate in Congress. And he wants to make selling weed less dangerous.

"On any given day in America, there are thousands of people who have shopping bags, duffel bags, backpacks full of $20 bills, trying to pay their taxes, pay their rent," Blumenauer tells WW. "It's insane."

He believes that federal legalization of cannabis—or, more specifically, the passage of a bill called the Secure and Fair Enforcement, or SAFE, Banking Act—would significantly reduce the number of weed robberies and burglaries, because there would be little to no cash on the stores' premises.

If passed, the SAFE Banking Act would provide a "safe harbor" that allows banks to offer financial services like loans, credit card processing, and access to capital to the cannabis industry without criminal risk.

"If they were able to have normal financial transactions, they wouldn't have this danger of repeated robbery," Blumenauer says. "It would take away this tempting target for thugs who know these are successful businesses [that] have lots of cash."

Blumenauer has been pushing for federal legalization of cannabis for decades. But he reached a milestone in December, when the House passed his legalization bill. The bill died in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. But now, with Democrats in charge, he feels hopeful.

"I think the table is set," Blumenauer says. "I think it'll happen relatively early in this session of Congress."

Each cannabis retailer who spoke to WW for this story agreed that passage of the SAFE Banking Act would make the industry as a whole much safer.

"You give us credit cards and the SAFE Banking Act, and our industry would soar," Monteleone says.

Yoo, the owner of Cured Green, agrees banking rights would help. But it would provide little comfort after Arthur's death.

“Who can replace the father of a son?” she asks. “Money is like water: It comes and goes. But human life is nothing you can replace.”