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Rocky Mountain High: Now That Pot Is Legal in Colorado, Robber Gangs Are Terrorizing Pot Shops

Funny thing about life. We talk about all kinds of laws, there ought to be a law for this, or that law ought to be changed. We don't spend enough time thinking about the law of unintended consequences.

Here's an effect of that law. Colorado has legalized pot. Pot shops tend not to attract the highest class of upwardly mobile customer. They also house a high-value material that is easily transported and sold, and they house a lot of money gained from the proceeds of selling that product. And lethargic hippies.

All of that makes for a bad combination.

One thief, posing as a delivery man, pulled a can of bear mace on employees and ransacked their marijuana shop, fleeing in a defensive cloud of “ultra-pepper” spray. Another opened the wall of a dispensary with an ax and attacked the store’s safe with a circular saw. Still another stuck to the basics. He kicked in the front door and pointed his gun at the counterman. An accomplice kicked in the back door and filled a duffel bag with more than $10,000 worth of high-quality cannabis.

For weeks now, the Mile High state has allowed the sale of recreational pot to adults, and so far the Rockies still stand. But crimes like the ones above, all of which occurred in Colorado in the last six months, have produced an acid-drip of anxiety in the industry, highlighting the dangers faced by those hoping to drag America’s most popular illegal drug into the light. Because marijuana remains banned by Congress, banks and security firms deny services to most dispensaries. That leaves them cash-based and vulnerable, a magnet for criminals who like the idea of unguarded counting rooms and shelves lined with lucrative horticulture.


More recently, however, the crimes have sent a forked bolt of fear through the industry. Last summer, for example, a trio of gunmen “demanded Weed” from the workers at a dispensary called 420 Wellness, according to documents provided by the district attorney’s office. As two of the gunmen filled “several trash bags” with award-winning marijuana, the third leapt over the counter and took a female employee by the elbow, leading her around the shop as a human insurance policy. Police caught up with that squad soon after they fled the scene, charging the ringleader with aggravated robbery and kidnapping.

But over the next six weeks, a different team of burglars hit at least eight dispensaries, and a third team is still on the loose after a stick-up at New Age Wellness in nearby Boulder County. Moments after closing time, two men dressed in baby-blue ski-masks burst in, pointed guns, and cleaned out the little mountain depot. “It’s an epidemic,” says one of the employees, who declined to give his name for safety reasons. “Everything is a lot tighter now. It isn’t so homey anymore.”

Pot tends to make users paranoid. So...

What is available suggests a troubling parallel development: as the industry has grown, its access to banking and security has declined, and crime has soared. What spurred the sudden loss of services remains a mystery, although many dispensary owners blame it on pressure from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has called Colorado’s experiment “reckless and irresponsible.”

“It’s like they’re trying to precipitate some sort of disaster,” says Norton Arbelaez, the founder of River Rock, one the Denver’s larger dispensaries. “It’s like they think: ‘If we can precipitate some sort of public safety issue, maybe we can stop it.’”

Well, this is the government that brought us the smash hit, Fast and Furious. The current government hates letting a crisis go to waste, and isn't above creating the crisis in the first place. Paranoia isn't entirely unjustified.

As pot dispensary crimes have become more common -- they may be hitting a 50% rate -- and more violent, some shops are hiring their own small armies of security guards. That could lead to gunfights in the streets and shops, the kind that were predicted but did not follow the passage of concealed carry laws.

At least no one has been killed. Yet.

Expect that to change, says Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. Last summer he told the city council that there have been a dozen homicides “directly” related to mom-and-pop residential marijuana grows, which have been legal in the state since 2000.

The editorial page director of the Denver Post accused him of “blowing smoke,” but Morrissey is now going further, predicting a spike in “strong-arm, bank-style, mask-and-gun robberies," as the old violence of the residential market spills into the new world of legalized marijuana from seed to sale. “You know, they say this is going to bring in tax revenue for our schools. Well, I don't deal with that. I deal with dead bodies.”