An irrefutable complaint that NIMBY neighbors have lodged against California cannabis clubs is that they are targets for crime. The clubs sell a commodity worth more than gold ($320-$400/ounce). Most of San Francisco’s40 dispensaries have been the targets of at least one armed robbery, and some have been hit repeatedly. Budtender P.L. Hats, who works at a club five blocks from the Hall of Justice, provided this account of a recent rip-off.
The Budtender’s Tale
I should have known to turn back the guy who came in Saturday morning with a large white rat on his left shoulder. We have killed so many in that club, and then hired an ex-exterminator to complete the job. It did not work, and the rats may yet have the final say in the old building, which has been a medical marijuana facility for five years. The guy with the rat just didn’t seem right, a bad omen. Hindsight is so keen. Sharp as a fine blade. If we could see ahead of us, though, we would never step foot out the front door.
Around 5:50 p.m. during a lull in the stream of customers, I lit a proper joint. I had just set it down when I heard a holler and scuffle and myco-worker saying in a strained voice, “Hey, you can’t go back there.” Turning around I saw a man about 12 feet away. He was on the short side, in a white untucked t-shirt, sporting a black baseball cap. He had a thin chrome pistol in his hand pointed at my face. “Get down on the ground right now!” he shouted. So I dropped, frightened, to the carpet at my feet, trying to get under the table on which medicinal cannabis is kept in glass bottles.
The small number of bills in the till disappointed him. He grabbed a box or a bag and began putting the bottles in them. “Where’s the hash? Where’s the hash?,” he repeated over and over. I replied in as soft a voice as I could muster while waving my right hand toward the hash, “It’s right there, you can have anything, it’s right there.” I began to feel increasingly afraid when I heard another robber yelling in the background “Get on the ground, face down! You know how this shit go!” I didn’t know it at the time but some patrons of the club were being dragged across the room and over desks to where a third robber was guarding them at gun point. As the three thugs were taking over the ground floor, I assumed that our video cameras were sending images upstairs to the boss man. “Give me all your shit, your wallets, everything. Now! We know where you live, too, so don’t fuck around!” One never knows it when it will be his last day of work.
One of the thieves came behind the counter to help his cohort clean out the loot, screaming angrily in frustration. Then I felt the cold hard steel of a gun barrel on the back of my head. “Don’t fucking move! Face down. Now!” I did as he said. “Now, tell us how to get into the safe NOW! Motherfucker tell us NOW!” I believe he issued a more specific ultimatum to me but my mind has erased that statement in order to maintain emotional stability.
This moment of all moments seemed like an eternity ‹which was where I was headed if he didn’t believe me or got excited or an itch or a bad notion or had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that day, or anything, for God’s sake. They wanted more money and they assumed I alone was keeping them from it. There turned out to be only about two hundred dollars cash in the register, since I’d done my job well and dropped to the safe throughout the day.
That was my predicament: too little money and a safe sitting there full of cash which they knew I knew how to open. “Tell me now,” insisted the man with the gun to my head. “I can’t open it, I promise– I don’t know how—but on the camera!” I said, pointing vaguely to let them know there was surveillance and that I wasn’t really in charge. I expected something to crash my cranium. I couldn’t help recalling a friend who had been pistol whipped at another club for hesitating with the money during a heist. The guy ran back to his partners yelling “Upstairs!”
It sounded as though he ran up the stairs. On the floor immediately above the dispensary there is only junk, but there should have been aa sniper or at least a security person. He came back enraged after not finding anything. He started to get rough with me again but was called off by the black-hatted robber who said “Let’s go.” I saw one of the thieves at the register clumsily carrying away one of our scales, which he didn’t realize was attached to the wall via power cable. The trio ran out the club, and I heard a big engine speed away, the sound blending with the cacophony of traffic typical on our street this time of day.
I maintained my position on the ground a good five minutes or more, frozen still, too shocked to move. I noticed morbidly the shape of my body, fixed in the same position as those yellow police chalk outlines you see of bodiesat murder scenes or on television. I was surprised by my lack of physical response to the danger ‹no heavy heart palpitations or sweating. But now I have a sense of what PTSD is like. In the weeks since the incident, ever raised voice or loud noise at the club has shattered my nerves. I don’t know when they’ll be back.
The SFPD came en masse and were respectful, getting statements and dustingfor prints. The elaborate video monitoring system was not recording at the time but my memory was. My statement was rather detailed and it wasn’t coming fast. I fired the joint again to calm and gather myself, and to celebrate existence above ground for a moment. Don, the boss, suggested we not do so in order not to offend the police. He then asked the spiked blonde policewoman if she objected to the smoke, to which she shook her head no.
The detective seemed interested in the case. No doubt he was pleased to be supplied with a piece of evidence which identified one of the three robbers. In the commotion he had dropped his patient’s i.d. card, issued from the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op, which expired in March 2004. A 26-year-oldmale from San Mateo was one of the gunman to enter our club and perpetrate this crime on us. All that must be done now is to round him up, identify him, send him to jail and quit our jobs to avoid retaliation. One can only hope that we will be granted equal treatment, as medical cannabis users and dispensers, to the average crime victim, and that the $10,000 reward posted by my boss will bring the perpetrators to justice.
We returned to our posts at the club the very next day, changed fundamentally. Now we no longer trust our fellow club patrons or or fellow citizens. The slightest fracas sends me thinking about exits and strategies. Now I constantly ask my fellow worker in charge of security, “Are we rolling?” Nearly one in five good and kind customers at least somewhat resembles the gunman. (Note: the security lapses have been fixed since this writing.)
Some people have, with macho swagger, claimed they would have not put up with being victims of the robbery, they would have resisted somehow.
“They’d’a had to shoot my ass,” is the way it has been expressed. But I say,“No heroes, please.” I would rather be alive telling you the tale of how we got robbed than very tough, a lot cooler, and dead. There is something about a careless, power-mad gun against the skull that makes a man think about things. Now when I go home and kiss my wife and son, it’s with added appreciation.
FRED GARDNER can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org