Crime

Colorado's Largest Dispensary Chain: Fifteen Burglary Attempts in Ninety Days Last Year

Denver experienced a string of armed robberies featuring a stolen Jeep Liberty at dispensaries in 2019 and 2020, like this one recorded .
Denver experienced a string of armed robberies featuring a stolen Jeep Liberty at dispensaries in 2019 and 2020, like this one recorded . Denver Police Department
LivWell Enlightened Health, one of Colorado's largest marijuana businesses, experienced fifteen burglary attempts over a three-month span last year, according to the company's head of security.

The state's biggest dispensary chain at 21 locations, LivWell has a handful of supplying cultivations around the state that have become targets for theft, LivWell retail compliance and corporate security manager James Bauer said during a October 28 discussion of banking services for the marijuana industry.

On a call in support of U.S. Representative Ed Perlmutter's Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, Bauer went into detail about several burglary attempts at LivWell businesses. Situations included "criminals driving stolen vehicles into our buildings multiple times," Bauer said, as well as drilling holes into the top of LivWell buildings or staging lookouts and getaways while suspects attempted to break in LivWell dispensaries and cultivations with crowbars and sledgehammers.

According to Bauer, the majority of these attempts in 2020 were successful. While LivWell has seen three successful break-ins this year, there have been others that were stymied — like an incident on October 11 when five people tried breaking into a dispensary by shutting off the power. The suspects eventually left, but not without first damaging doors and windows.

LivWell lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars due to these break-ins" in 2020, Bauer said, and as a result has invested millions of dollars in security. The company now has over 2,500 security cameras and more than forty security guards, some of whom are paid to sit in parking lots of LivWell locations overnight in order to deter potential criminals. LivWell employees are also trained to deal with emergency situations "we know they'll eventually have to face," added Bauer, who is a military veteran.

"[We have] barriers to prevent vehicles, high-grade locks and doors and reinforced walls and doors," he said. "Some of those security measures I would've expected to see while deployed in Afghanistan, not while running a retail business in downtown Denver, Colorado."

Because marijuana is still federally prohibited, the majority of commercial pot businesses are denied banking services and forced to operate in cash; this creates a lane for burglaries and robberies. According to an annual marijuana impact report compiled by the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, burglaries associated with commercial marijuana rose from 122 in 2019 to 175 in 2020.

But criminals aren't after just cash in these crimes. Marijuana itself fetches a good price on the black market, especially in states where the plant is still illegal.

"If you're in the cannabis industry, you will always be a target," concluded Bauer, whose company was recently acquired by Chicago-based PharmaCanna Inc. in a major deal for Colorado cannabis.

Denver Excise and Licenses has approved new security and storage rules for marijuana businesses in hopes of decreasing after-hour crime rates, but marijuana business owners across the country believe that easier banking access would enable them to operate more safely. However, large banks have stayed away from serving state-legal pot businesses out of fear of federal reprisal, and the credit unions and banks that do serve the marijuana industry charge high fees for the risks incurred.

Perlmutter's SAFE Banking Act, a piece of legislation he's been pushing since 2013, would allow banks and financial-services providers to take on marijuana accounts without being hit with federal drug charges, allowing pot business owners to obtain bank accounts in order to accept debit and credit cards, as well as business loans and lines of credit. The bill passed the House five times from 2019 to 2021, but a larger push for federal legalization has moved the SAFE Banking Act to the sidelines in the Senate, where it has yet to go to a vote.

Social equity issues such as reparations for communities impacted by the War on Drugs are now driving the conversation in the Senate, with powerful Democratic senators like Cory Booker and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pushing forms of more aggressive pot legislation with social equity provisions. Booker and Schumer have stated that if marijuana banking were approved, it could compromise the national legalization effort by putting one foot in with commerce but keeping the other foot out with social justice.

“If we let this bill out, it will make it much harder and take longer to pass comprehensive reform,” Schumer said in a podcast interview with Psychoactive. “We certainly want the provisions similar to the SAFE Banking Act in our bill. But to get more moderate people — to get some Republicans, to get the financial-services industry — behind a comprehensive bill is the way to go. It’s the right thing to do.”

Perlmutter missed the October 28 call in order to attend a last-minute congressional caucus, but he's been busy on his Twitter account this week, pushing the SAFE Banking bill.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell