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Calgary cannabis store owners call for change to display rules after spike in robberies

Calgary cannabis store owners are pushing for changes to Health Canada's rules on product displays in an effort to make the businesses safer for staff and patrons.  

The film on windows that covers most cannabis stores is not mandated, but it is one way for them to comply with sections 29 and 30 in the federal Cannabis Act, which prohibits the display of cannabis or cannabis accessories where a young person can see them from street level.

The issue with the coverings, as Justin Woo points out, is the blocked windows act as a cover for thieves when they rob the stores. 

"Someone can come into the store and they have more time to do what they want," said Woo, who owns four Bud Bar locations.

"In most instances (thieves) can lock the door if they want and no one outside – even if you’re on a main road or busy intersection or busy traffic – no one can see inside, so that creates a huge security risk."

Woo says one of his stores was robbed at gun point two years ago, just three weeks after it opened, while two employees were inside. 

On Sunday, another one of his stores was hit. Woo says the robber had a Taser in his hand and demanded product and cash before walking out.

“We’re so thankful that our staff are OK and no one was hurt," Woo said. "But the question I pose to the regulators is, how long is that going to last? And is it going to take a loss of life for them to try to change this?”

Woo says while thefts typically happen after the store is closed. The most recent robbery occurred just before 9 p.m. when there was still significant foot traffic around the area. 

Omar Khan is a spokesperson for High Tide Inc., which oversees 113 Canna Cabana dispensaries across the country, including more than 60 in Alberta. He says the number of cannabis store robberies across the country started accelerating at the onset of the pandemic.

“Since really the end of 2020, there’s been a multiple-fold increase in armed robbery attempts at cannabis locations across Alberta and across various retailers,” said Khan.

“The situation appears to be the most acute in Alberta, and within Alberta the most acute in Calgary.”

Khan says they’ve noticed that offenders are taking off with product, which he believes is being sold illegally. His company has been working closely with police in all jurisdictions, including Calgary.

According to the Calgary Police Service (CPS), 29 cannabis store robberies were reported in 2021. Between the start of this year and March 1, there have been 10. 

Sgt. Nick Wilsher from the CPS's crime prevention unit says the spike in cannabis store robberies is similar to a spike in pharmacy robberies in that suspects are usually young.

“And occasionally it’s the same offenders," Wilsher said. "We are also noting it’s the same kind of high-level of violence used.”

Wilsher says CPS and store owners are working with the Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC) to explore alternatives to window coverings.

In a statement, the AGLC says “recent thefts in cannabis retail stores (are) a concern and AGLC is currently working with our stakeholders to see what other options may be available.”

The organization also says that retailers have other options to keep products out of sight for youth and still comply with legislation and policy, “for example, some store designs have a foyer in the front and the remainder of the store in the back, so no cannabis and accessories are visible from the outside."

Woo says the issue with the wall at the front of the store is that it still blocks the view from the street, which doesn’t solve the problem. 

He and other retailers are open to working with the AGLC and Health Canada to find other creative ways to keep their staff safe while also ensuring cannabis is kept away from minors. 

Calgary police say an officer with the CPS robbery unit has been working with retail owners to find other immediate ways they can prevent the thefts from happening. A WhatsApp group has also been created for information and tip sharing. 

Sgt. Wilsher says they’ve advised store owners to beef up their security, including installing an ID scan-pass system that some liquor stores have.

“Manitoba has put in the same system in their liquor stores and they’ve seen a huge reduction in robberies," said Sgt Wilsher. "That’s something we are encouraging and pushing along because that would certainly reduce the amount of robberies that are happening because nobody wants to use their own ID to commit a crime."

Woo says he is going above and beyond AGLC mandates when it comes to checking their security cameras, panic buttons and alerts.

“Based on yesterday’s robbery, we are prepared to put some ring door bells on the outside of stores and perhaps lock the door after 8 p.m. or 10 p.m.” Top Stories

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