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Up In Smoke: Cannabis, Crime and Creating Equity

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Chaney Turner speaks in front of California's State Capitol Building in Sacramento during a protest of high cannabis taxes in January of this year.
Chaney Turner speaks in front of California's State Capitol Building in Sacramento during a protest of high cannabis taxes in January of this year.  (Pendarvis Harshaw)


A storm’s been brewing over legal cannabis in Oakland. And Chaney Turner thinks it has the potential to wash away small business owners– especially People of Color.

Turner, current Chair of the City of Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission, has seen robberies reach new heights as organized heists hit cannabis supply chains, from grow operations to retailers. It was especially intense during the summer of 2020, but this past fall, another string of caravan burglaries shook the industry, and resulted in distressed workers and millions in lost inventory.

Turner says the Oakland Police Department’s response to the burglaries was disappointing and frustrating to business owners. Turner heard retailers experienced slow response times and poor communication from OPD. Some operators were also told to take matters into their own hands by arming themselves. While they have seen some improvement from OPD in communicating potential threats, for cannabis operators in Oakland paying sky high taxes, the approach still leaves something to be desired.

On this week’s show Turner talks about the state of legalized cannabis and how it intersects with these robberies, banking, equity, and community safety.

Below are some lightly edited excerpts of our conversation the conversation we recorded in January.

Pen: Just bring us into the fold, what’s been happening as of late?

Chaney: It’s been a kind of a rough two years in general. Our industry has experienced massive burglaries since 2020. During the summer of 2020, there were actions happening across the country in regards to George Floyd and the continued police violence against Black people and Black bodies. Some people used that opportunity to target cannabis operations: dispensaries, cultivation sites, delivery services, warehouses.

Chaney: The way that these burglaries happen is you have caravans of people that will roll up to a spot stealing whatever they can get their hands on: product, cash, electronics, whatever they could take, they took. Some have been more organized with people who actually have weapons. Some of these cannabis operations were targeted multiple times, and it hasn’t stopped. People don’t feel safe!

Pen: And with your position as the chair of the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission, what have you seen as a response both from stakeholders and from the police?

Chaney: The cannabis community is really frustrated. And so a lot of the frustration is the response time and also the lack of communication from OPD and the city when there is a violent burglary that has happened.

Chaney: … The police response should not be hours. If my home or my business has been burglarized I expect their response to be immediate, and the frustration is also because cannabis operators pay some of the highest taxes to the city of Oakland. It further harms equity and small operators who are trying to build a life and some type of wealth for them and their families. I’m specifically talking about women and POC and locally owned businesses. Those are the ones that we have to protect because they’re really hemorrhaging and people are desperate.

Pen: Ok so, the folks working in the cannabis industry are historically anti-establishment, I mean they’ve been criminalized by the police, but now as people are strategizing on how to increase safety, and one of the option is to work with police… which is a major shift. How have you seen this play out?

Chaney: As someone who is a lifetime resident of Oakland and also someone who advocates against police violence…when we’re talking about keeping our communities safe, we have to take into account that we need more affordable housing, real affordable housing. We need jobs that pay above minimum wage. You know, people are trying to find ways to survive. And does that mean that people need to go and rob folks? No, but I can’t speak for people in certain situations.

Chaney: … One of the responses from OPD to operators was for them to hire armed security and to have them on the roof and shoot at people who are attempting to ya know burglarize their spaces. That’s not what we want. Ya know, the cannabis community is not calling for violence. I want to see better solutions around public safety other than just adding more police.

Pen: As someone who has historically advocated against over policing and police violence you’re now in a position where you are working with police to deal with the issues the cannabis industry is facing. I’m just wondering, how do you hold that tension?

Chaney: Morally, it’s challenging [laughs] you know? But I also make sure that I use my position to get as much transparency and accountability when possible… During our November meeting, you know, we had OPD Chief Armstrong speak on the robberies and I’m also very grateful to have Commissioner Corder, Tracey Corder, who does abolitionist work… And it’s important to have a body of people who are not going to have all the same views, but we can respect each other’s views. And when it comes to police accountability, I feel that in general, we do a good job diverting any unnecessary funds… At the same time with this position, I just can’t make it about myself, and so during the last meeting, when there was  a proposal of possibly of adding extra officers? Well, Chaney, the Oakland resident, I’m like, no, but there’s also business owners who are looking for them to do their work. And so if that does pass, if that does happen, we still need to make sure that they’re held accountable to the actual police work.

Pen: What role does the issues around banking and having money on hand, how does that play a part into this discussion or does it?

Chaney: It does somewhat…  So for people to understand… Cannabis businesses have no access to banking like your traditional type businesses, and so usually there’s a lot of cash on hand and or you might have to use an ATM machine, get your cash and then pay for your medicine. And for years, ya know, advocates have been pushing for safe banking so that cannabis businesses can have less barriers.

Pen (narration): To be clear: marijuana is still federally illegal. So in order to follow federal law, many banks don’t work with cannabis businesses… In California, this leads many small businesses to only work in cash. And there can be A LOT of cash on hand. Sometimes millions of dollars. Making them targets for theft or worse. So it makes sense why folks are pushing for cannabis businesses to get access to banking. Recently federal legislators have been working on the SAFE Banking act and even though it’s got bipartisan support, it’s been unsuccessful in getting signed into law. But Chaney thinks Safe Banking won’t solve everything…

Chaney: Robberies are happening with businesses in general. Louis Vuitton has access to banking. Nordstrom’s has access to banking and they’re still being robbed… And so I want people to understand that banking won’t stop robberies. Banking hasn’t stopped robberies for any industry… Do we need [banking]? Yes. But we also need to make sure that whatever passes through the Senate with SAFE Banking, that it’s still equitable.

Chaney: Small businesses and Black people in general, I don’t care what business you’re in, already face discrimination when we’re going for small business loans and we need to make sure that when the safe banking does passed that it’s inclusive and equitable and not just catering to large corporate multi-state operators. They’re the ones that’s trying to go around the country and pretty much be the Walgreen’s of cannabis.

Pen: What is the remedy to this perfect storm that you’ve laid out of issues that small cannabis retail spots are facing right now?

Chaney: One of the things that we would like and we’ve seen a little bit since the Thanksgiving weekend robberies, there was communication that came from OPD. They had received information that there was possibly going to be an attempted robberies on New Year’s Eve. There was video footage of these caravans that was scoping out some potential spots, and so operators who caught that footage got on it, sent it over to OPD. OPD posted it on their social media. Emails went out…Those types of things are preventative. To my knowledge, there were no robberies that happened over the weekend of New Year’s Eve.

Chaney: In regards to security, during our last commission meeting, there was a proposal of some funds because we do get funds from the state each year to strengthen our cannabis programs, asking for additional funds for some operations to have some security. Also, the funds to better fortified spaces. In my opinion You can only have so much security and police overtime, that’s not a long term solution.

Pen: We’ve been talking about robberies of cannabis businesses in Oakland… but it’s more than that, what do you see as the bigger equity issue here?

Chaney: You know, if the robberies continue to happen, I think we’ll lose more equity businesses. You can only be robbed so many times like, you know, Blunts and Moore has been robbed multiple times. And for one, it’s not fair. It’s not fair for people, coming from these experiences and backgrounds, whether it’s being formerly incarcerated, you know, or just being poor, right, and working your way up to having an actual, you know, cannabis operation only for it to be burglarized and vandalized so many times… We need to find ways to keep these people hopeful. Because people are losing hope and if they lose hope, we’re going to lose businesses.

Chaney: If I’m somebody that’s still is on the unlicensed market witnessing all this happening to people who made it, I’m like, Hell, nah. I’m not like, Nah, I’m stay over here trapping, doing my own thing and stay in my lane right here. We need to get rid of all of these barriers and find out ways to keep our community safe so that people can be encouraged.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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