Byers' Beat is a weekly column written by the I-Team's Christine Byers, who has covered public safety in St. Louis for 15 years. It is intended to offer context and analysis to the week's biggest crime stories and public safety issues.
ST. LOUIS — This week, a car went through the wall of a medical marijuana dispensary in St. Louis County – not once, but twice within a 24-hour period.
It was the latest – and most brazen – in a series of burglaries at dispensaries across the St. Louis region in recent weeks, which industry security experts fear are the work of a heavily armed and increasingly dangerous group of juveniles and young adults.
In all, police and marijuana industry security specialists tell me the group has struck dispensaries more than two dozen times since July.
Their targets span the area.
Dispensaries in St. Louis, Sunset Hills, Berkeley, Manchester, Richmond Heights, St. Charles, Lemay, Concord Village in south St. Louis County – and just today, Valley Park, have been hit.
Cookies – the shop that had a car driven through it twice – got the most public attention because of the obvious damage.
Up until this week, the thieves have been breaking in by launching bricks through doors and windows, damaging displays and stealing cash registers inside the facilities, according to Joe Patterson, principal of Patterson and Associates.
I did a story featuring Patterson, a former St. Louis County police officer, and other former officers who have left the law enforcement profession to start working in the medical marijuana industry. His company is a security training and management firm that services the industry, and he helps look after about 20 marijuana dispensaries across the state.
So far, none of them have been hit.
Still, everyone in the industry right now feels a bit like sitting ducks, he said.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Patterson said.
He’s also a member of the Missouri Cannabis Trade Association, which meets monthly.
“We discuss emerging issues to see what we can learn from each other and do better and this is the hottest topic right now,” Patterson said. “Every operator should be taking a very deep dive into their physical security measures and also their security policies and training.
“We’ve been preparing for this since the design stage of our facilities,” Patterson said. “It would be foolish to think Missouri would be immune to this.
“Burglaries happen at traditional businesses.”
Berkeley Police Chief Art Jackson said the thieves that burglarized the Green Light dispensary there struck at 1:38 a.m. July 25. They hurled a large rock through the front of the business, were heavily armed and wore masks. His detectives soon learned a group of thieves matching the description had struck other facilities, including the Bloc dispensary in Richmond Heights, Organic Remedies in Concord Village and Nature Med in Lemay.
So, how much marijuana and money are these thieves getting?
I figured it must be worth their while if they’re willing to break into the same dispensary using a car not once, but twice in 24 hours.
Patterson says, it’s not likely to be a worthwhile endeavor at most places – it just depends on how strong their security protocols are.
“If you’re able to get inside one of these facilities, you’re likely to leave empty-handed and just leave a huge mess,” he said.
The state’s Department of Health and Senior Services oversees the regulation part of the industry. It requires numerous safety and security measures as a condition of an operator’s license to sell.
“If we adhere to the regulations that are in place and we further toughen our facilities beyond those minimum regulations, we can have more peace of mind.”
Police sources tell me the group of thieves believed to be responsible for the break-ins are also connected to other crimes, including other retail burglaries, at least one burglary at car dealership, and car break-ins and thefts.
Both vehicles they used to slam through the wall at Cookies were stolen.
The first one was a pickup. The second one reminded me of another topic I’ve been covering for months now.
It was a stolen Hyundai. Its ignition had been damaged. And a USB cord was found on the ground.
So far, the thieves have been striking during off hours, so no one has been hurt.