Legal Issues

In May 2013, video surveillance at the ReLeaf medical marijuana dispensary on Southeast 122nd in Portland captured an armed robbery lasting 3 minutes and 16 seconds. A hooded suspect that entered the store pulled a gun, prompting two people behind the counter to get down on the floor. Aimee Green | The Oregonian/OregonLive
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Will legal marijuana in Oregon set off surge in robberies? Police wait to see

Jul 3, 2015


Oregon Live -    A word of advice to Oregonians who plan to grow marijuana in their backyards: Don't brag about your new venture on Twitter or proudly post photos of your budding crop on Facebook.

In fact, don't advertise it at all if you want to avoid unwanted attention from crooks who prey on easy pickings, police say. Police and prosecutors are bracing themselves for what they say could be a crime wave after July 1, when growing, consuming and stocking away up to 8 ounces of recreational marijuana becomes legal in Oregon for adults 21 and older.
Crime statistics from the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana – Colorado and Washington – so far show a mix of trends. Those laws have been in effect only since late 2012 -- and pot has been readily available to the masses only since recreational pot shops opened in both states in 2014.
But Oregon's 17-year history of legalized medical marijuana gives some clues. Police and prosecutors anecdotally point to robberies that have turned violent, even deadly, as armed bandits have hit homes and dispensaries seeking marijuana and money.
Police wonder if home invasion robberies will surge and if everyday Oregonians will become targets for the pot in their pockets. And will the new normal attract out-of-state drug dealers who want to ship pot back to the 46 states where recreational marijuana is still illegal?
"Everybody's talking about it," said Bret Smith, police chief in Canby, home of a marijuana-fueled robbery and homicide last year.
Statistics compiled by Denver police show that overall crime driven by marijuana has increased by 15 percent from 2012 (roughly the last full year recreational marijuana was illegal) to 2014, when recreational pot shops opened on New Year's Day.
Most notably, the Denver figures show that marijuana-driven robberies jumped by 50 percent -- from 24 in 2012 to 36 in 2014.
But it's still early to draw conclusions, and numbers for the first several months of 2015 indicate a slow-down in pot-driven crimes, including robberies.
In Oregon, police say home-invasion robberies appeared to increase after voters in 1998 legalized medical marijuana and more people -- within legal limits or not -- began to grow marijuana in their homes.
Some law officers say home invasion robberies again could increase when Oregonians begin cultivating marijuana crops in their homes and backyards. It's simple math: After July 1, it's a given that there will be more marijuana in Oregon.
And many predict that it still will cost a bundle.
"Just because something's legal ... doesn't mean that it's going to be devalued," said Smith, the Canby police chief.
Marijuana is notoriously difficult to grow – and that will likely keep the price high.
Joe Santos, a Portland police sergeant who investigates home invasions, notes that growing a quality crop takes fertilizers, equipment and months of time.
"And the types of people who do home invasion robberies, they have none of that," Santos said.
Some of the victims of pot-related home robberies have been shocked that they were targeted, he said. He remembers the outrage of a mother of a newborn: She scratched at the face of one of the robbers who burst into the bedroom of her home while her baby was there.
Santos also remembers the surprise of another home invasion victim who had been growing medical marijuana legally.
"He said, 'I'm legit. I can't believe this happened,'" Santos recalled. "I told him: 'Bank of America is legit. Plaid Pantry is legit. They get robbed all of the time. And you don't have security like they do.'"
Even innocent bystanders have fallen victim to marijuana-related robberies. That was the case in 2007, when two armed intruders burst into the wrong Southeast Portland home, using a gun to terrify three college students who'd been watching TV and cooking dinner. The intruders quickly realized that they were looking for the medical marijuana grower next door.
Authorities advise people considering a home grow to think twice about its risks. And if they decide to do it: Be discreet. Don't talk about it with friends or neighbors.
"I think that there's definitely that risk," said Gresham police spokesman John Rasmussen. "The public is going to have to weigh whether they want to involve themselves in the potential of being robbed."
Rasmussen has worked extensively with students as a school resource officer and said people who grow pot in their backyards -- out of "public view," as required by the new law -- should know that the neighborhood kids probably will still learn about it.
Rasmussen sees the potential for tragedy by armed homeowners who wake in the middle of the night to find someone -- perhaps even neighborhood students -- stealing their marijuana crop.
"You better make sure it's not a kid," he said.
In September 2013, a Southeast Portland who lived just steps from Cleveland High School and was illegally growing 500 marijuana plants on his property stabbed a 16-year-old boy in the head and chest after discovering the boy trying to make off with some of the plants. The boy survived, but with lingering injuries, including problems digesting food and keeping on weight. The man -- Gerald Mathews -- was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison.
Mathews was a medical marijuana grower, but was raising far more plants than allowed.
Homes and individual residents, however, might not be the only targets, police say. Recreational pot shops -- slated to open no later than 2016 -- will likely be a draw to thieves.
Investigators say the quest for marijuana by a man from Texas -- where marijuana isn't legal -- led to the shooting deaths of two people who were part of a family-run Southeast Portland medical marijuana dispensary. In the weeks before the April killings, Colby Robinson had been hounding the family for weeks to illegally supply him with marijuana, investigators say.
On April 10, Robinson arrived at the family's Division Street home and was able to skirt security measures by entering through a gate when a legitimate medical marijuana patient was let in.
Robinson fatally shot Dat "Gary" Pham, 33, and Sun-Lent "Susie" Chang, 41, in the head, police say. Robinson also shot Andrew Pham, 35, four times, but he survived. Chang and Andrew Pham were married, and their 13-week-old baby was in a nearby room and unharmed by the killer. Texas police shot and killed Robinson after a confrontation days later.
While Robinson appeared interested in acquiring marijuana, authorities say the large amounts of cash flowing into pot businesses make them an even bigger target. Because marijuana will still be illegal under federal law, banks won't allow the operations to deposit the money they've made. That means -- unlike the corner 7-Eleven -- pot shops can have thousands or tens of thousands on hand.
Recreational marijuana supporters say concerns over a crime wave are unnecessary.
"The way it's been sensationalized, you'd think it'd be a common occurrence -- it's not," said Leland Berger, an attorney at the Oregon CannaBusiness Compliance Counsel.
Berger said home invasions related to marijuana are exceptionally rare. But they do happen because marijuana -- which goes for about $2,500 a pound in Oregon -- is so expensive.
"And the reason why the price is high," Berger said, "is because of prohibition. The source of these crimes in not marijuana legalization, the source of these kinds of crimes in marijuana prohibition."
When marijuana is no longer taboo, the price eventually will fall and remove the incentive for targeted crime, he said.
At the national level, supporters point to a study -- "The Effect of Medical Marijuana on Crime" from 1990 to 2006 -- that found that murders and assaults might have decreased slightly in states with medical marijuana laws. The study concluded that crime also might have dropped around medical marijuana dispensaries due to tight security in and around their premises.
Marijuana proponents say pot shops have motivation to quash crime.
"So their clientele aren't worried about going back to their cars and being robbed or assaulted," said Paul Armentano, deputy director of Washington, D.C.-based NORML, the legalization group.
The medical marijuana crime study acknowledged research that found property crimes increased in states that have legalized medical marijuana, but also noted that more study may be warranted to track longer trends.
Researchers will look to Oregon, Washington and Colorado -- and Alaska and Washington, D.C., which both enacted recreational pot laws earlier this year -- for much of that data.
Santos, the Portland police robbery sergeant, wonders if recreational weed's legalization in Oregon might have one crime-fighting effect: deterrence. Victims of pot-related crimes might feel emboldened by the new law to call police, he said. And in turn, that might dissuade robbers from committing new crimes.
"I think the one thing a lot of robbers have had in their back pockets is they thought the growers wouldn't report it because the grow was illegal," Santos said. "I'll be curious to see now that these (grows) are legitimate, will (victims) call the police because they haven't done anything wrong?"

“If you choose to consume, please do so responsibly.” 

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