Board hears concerns about crimes targeting cannabis industry

An uptick in burglaries targeting marijuana businesses has officials concerned, but no one seems to be tracking thefts and break-ins at Alaska’s cannabis businesses to get an idea on how safely the cash-only industry is faring.

According to James Hoelscher, the chief enforcement officer at the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, or AMCO, the number of theft-related hits targeting these businesses is on the rise.

He suggested the state agency may need to help out by providing guidance on security. At a presentation before the Marijuana Control Board Jan. 25, Hoelscher described finding hollow doors and simple locks on businesses that failed to fully analyze their security.

“During inspections, we can and do give them pointers and help out by highlighting a potential problem,” Hoelscher said.

Because AMCO doesn’t yet track crimes committed at the establishments, the information presented by Hoelscher at the last meeting was based only on what he has heard while working enforcement, Executive Director Erika McConnell said when asked for numbers of burglaries.

“It seems like burglaries are on the uptick because of what we’ve heard anecdotally, but we have no official data to support that,” she said.

The board passed a regulation in November that will require any crimes occurring on premises to be reported to AMCO. But that new regulation hasn’t yet made it out of the queue of an analysis by the Department of Law and then a signature by Lt. Gov. Bryan Mallot.

Board member Nick Miller, a cannabis business owner, said he knows of two retail shops that were hit recently. One was an armed robbery that involved making off with both cash and marijuana.

“I don’t know why the armed robbery wasn’t publicized,” Miller said. “It’s hard to sort out because there is no official reporting. Three other incidents I know of were two cultivations were broken into and product was taken, another was a retail shop but they didn’t get anything.”

Anchorage Police reported 1,982 burglaries took place in 2017, up from the 1,822 reported in 2016, but they do not aggregate out any that took place at cannabis businesses, said APD Spokesperson Renee Oistad.

One key aggravation to owners is the abundance of information that gets posted online about their floor plans and business layouts. When Danish Gardens was hit on Dec. 19, burglars made off with $150,000 in marijuana.

Because the thieves, caught on video, weren’t owner Dana Wyrick’s employees or people he knew, he said he strongly suspects they were privy to his operations from gleaning the information online through his licensing application at AMCO’s website.

To date, Wyrick said, AMCO hasn’t taken his cultivation operation’s sensitive information offline.

AMCO is in the process of remedying that by removing certain information.

“We are working on taking the floor plans off line but we are not finished yet. We focused first on those who showed camera placements,” McConnell said in an email.

But floor plans are not eliminated from the application, she added.

The application form was modified to state that applicants should not put placement of cameras on their diagram.

A precaution on the form now reads: “For your security, do not include locations of security cameras, motion detectors, panic buttons, and other security devices.”

This revised form is available on AMCO’s website and the older version of this form will no longer be accepted starting Feb. 1, McConnell said.

What will not change is posted home addresses of business owners on both the AMCO and the Municipality of Anchorage websites.

Assemblyman Christopher Constant said the municipality took the initiative before AMCO to scrub security information from its website.

“We’re very interested in protecting these businesses, but we must still comply with public disclosure laws,” Constant said. “We won’t be taking off the home addresses of businesses because that’s public disclosure. The addresses show up on the tax (rolls). Everyone’s personal information is online, even the highest prosecutorial judges; everyone has their addresses online. There’s no way to shield them. We can’t make an exemption for cannabis businesses.”

The Anchorage Assembly tasked the planning department to come up with specific recommendations for what other private information should be taken off line, Constant said.

“What are we willing to protect? The kinds of things we’ve already made decisions to scrub are security plans in specific uses: cameras and safes, any of the basics of that nature that provide a road map to somebody with less than decent purposes,” he said.

The planning commission’s recommendations for what else can come off should be coming in early February, he said.

Another option is that information required under public disclosure laws can be taken offline and made available only to people who visit municipal or other government offices and show identification to access a public document.

Attorney Jana Weltzin, whose specialty is cannabis law, made that recommendation at the Juneau board meeting when she gave public testimony urging the board to do more to protect cannabis businesses. Weltzin told the board thieves hit four of her clients’ businesses.

“We always let enforcement know,” she said. “Danish Garden took the biggest hit. If you make their information publicly available, do it by requiring they go through a public records request; then you would have their identity. Don’t make it online and make it so accessible.”

Three of the burglaries were attempted but not successful, Weltzin said. The one at Danish Gardens caused a major hit in both income and its ongoing operation.

“(Dana Wyrick) lost $150,000 that he was planning on using for the operation of his business. He had to lay off half his work force,” she said.

Weltzin would like to see AMCO track the data on crimes that occur on business premises.

“It’s important data we need to articulate intelligently how the regulations should be shaped,” she said.

Still, any upswing in criminal hits on the marijuana businesses likely isn’t a matter of targeting, said Miller.

“I don’t believe marijuana businesses are being targeted any more than convenience stores or banks. It’s just a part of business, especially in Anchorage,” Miller said. “Burglaries have gone up in the past 18 months and we’re just another business. Those that take extra precaution will be less at risk.”

Miller recommends that businesses use the resources out there, such as free security inspections offered by the APD.

Miller estimates 95 percent of cannabis businesses have invested in professional security installations.

“Yes, it is a cash business but there are precautions and things you can do to protect your assets,” Miller said. “I would just recommend that any marijuana business out there review how they deal with cash and all their security practices. There should never be a domestic door in a commercial building.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

01/31/2018 - 11:23am