Four young people armed with guns broke into the Love Shack dispensary at 502 14th St. around closing time on Monday night, confirmed a representative of the dispensary.
But the police arrived, guns drawn, to Mission Cannabis Club instead, another dispensary a mile away. Someone had called 911 reporting armed robbers there — at the wrong store.
“We were open. Everybody was here, they were surprised,” said Rami Kassis, the general manager of Mission Cannabis Club. “I don’t know if they didn’t know the address over there, or it was set up in a way that [police] show up here so they can distract them.”
Whether this was a mistake or a cunning decoy turned out to be a distinction without a difference: While Mission Station police officers were distracted, thieves holding up Love Shack made off with cash and inventory. At least one employee was present at the dispensary, and the robbers took their ID, according to a report from the SFPD.
Monday’s break-in is the latest in a series of robberies targeting cannabis retailers in San Francisco — and leaving their owners feeling helpless.
“Talk to anybody, whatever they’re selling, everybody’s so depressed,” said Al Shawa, the owner of Mission Cannabis Club.
In addition to an already difficult business environment, marijuana is “a hot seller,” Shawa said. “You could sell it anywhere because it’s cannabis, because there’s so many users.”
Isaac Tapia spent Monday on his farm in Humboldt instead of at the dispensary he opened just months ago with his family. Tapia’s Mission District shop, Poncho Brotherz, is shuttered with plywood after a robbery in late March cleared out its inventory and left the business damaged.
“Three cars, nine people, all guns,” said Tapia, a marijuana grower and co-owner of the dispensary, recounting what he saw on the security camera footage of the incident.
That day, the neighborhood’s power was out and the alarm system was disabled, leaving the shop vulnerable. In addition to the cannabis products, Tapia was surprised to find that the thieves even took Poncho Brotherz t-shirts and sweaters, and free cannabis magazines.
Tapia’s team estimates the losses amount to more than $200,000, not counting the cost of repairs or the loss of business while the store is temporarily closed.
Most cannabis dispensaries do not accept credit cards and many transact completely in cash, making them a bigger target for theft.
“It’s hard to get a bank account, you have to pay fees. They charge us like $1,000 a month just to have the account,” said Joseph Hunt, the owner of Union Station, another relatively new dispensary that opened in early 2022.
Hunt said his Mission Street business hasn’t yet suffered a major theft, but is cognizant that others had been targeted — including a February instance, in which the manager of a Stiiizy store in SoMa was kidnapped.
“I have it on my mind all the time when I’m coming and going from here,” Hunt said.
According to the city’s police code, cannabis sale permit holders are required to have 24/7 camera surveillance, hire on-site security during business hours, and maintain an alarm system.
But many robberies are never solved. Only about one in five San Francisco robberies are solved in the city, according to the police department’s own data, although overall reported robberies have decreased in recent years.
Asked about an increase in dispensary robberies, the San Francisco Police Department could not confirm any trends. “We do not have our data parsed out for specific businesses and we do not have the number of incidents occurring at these locations,” said Officer Robert Rueca, a department spokesperson.
But police department command staff has been warning the public about the risk of robberies. At a Police Commission meeting last month, Deputy Chief Denise Flaherty suggested that dispensary workers take extra precautions after the kidnapping incident. “That is a concern, and we recognize it,” she said.
Police occasionally stop by Dr. Greenthumb to warn the employees about robberies, the manager said, but it’s not much help. Some people planning a robbery, he was told by police, attach smart trackers like Airtags to workers’ cars to follow them home. The manager insisted on remaining anonymous because of perceived dangers of the cannabis industry.
Like the dispensary workers that Mission Local interviewed, he sees theft as a “shitty circumstance,” a cost of doing business.
Dispensaries, the Dr. Greenthumb manager said, are “in the same realm as jewelry stores and liquor stores and things like that: They just probably assume that people have cash on hand” — even if that isn’t the case.
The last time Mission Cannabis Club was broken into, thieves came in from the roof of the building next door, Kassis said. He estimated they took about $15,000 to $20,000 in inventory, low enough that he deemed it not worth filing an insurance claim.
“Now we installed a metal door on it, and we have a metal gate in front. So I think we’re fine,” Kassis said. “In terms of security, well, we just hope for the best.”
After last night’s incident, Shawa said he decided to begin closing Mission Cannabis Club two hours earlier, at 8 p.m. around sundown. “I don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
Tapia of Poncho Brotherz was forced to close his shop while waiting for an insurance claim to go through. “There’s no capital we’re just sitting on to just do repairs … and reopen in two weeks,” he said.
The business needs structural work to fix the damages, and a new door he hopes will prevent future break-ins. In the meantime, Tapia says he is staying positive, and plans to participate where he can; Poncho Brotherz will be one of the vendors at next week’s 4/20 celebration at Hippie Hill.
Others in the industry have had trouble seeing things optimistically, and want more protection from the city.
Tapia’s partner, Ed Brown, was disappointed with the current situation. “With San Francisco’s rich history of having dispensaries … we should be at a much better place than this,” he said.
Shawa said many businesses are struggling, with the high taxes that cannabis businesses pay, cannabis prices dropping as inflation impacts other costs, and a saturation of the market.
“We were hoping that we hit rock bottom, and now we’re going to start seeing the light,” Shawa said. “But this is happening, like, there’s no goddamn light.”