(Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

Denver crime: Pot shop burglaries on decline, but industry still worried

Even with the start of legal recreational marijuana sales 5½ months ago, burglaries and robberies at all pot businesses in Denver are on pace for their lowest total in three years, according to figures from the city’s Department of Safety.

Through the end of May, there had been 53 burglaries and one robbery at the city’s more than 700 licensed marijuana stores and cultivation facilities — putting the city on pace for about 130 burglaries and robberies by year’s end. In 2013, there were 147 burglaries and four robberies, according to Safety Department data, and in 2012, there were 170 burglaries and three robberies.

The dip comes despite police and industry fears that marijuana businesses — many of which keep large amounts of cash on hand because they don’t have access to banking services — remain alluring targets for crime.

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“This situation could be a lot worse,” said Michael Elliott, the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group. “But it’s still a lot of burglaries, whether it’s more or less than it was last year.”

Elliott said the state’s security requirements for marijuana businesses, along with the extra security guards some businesses have hired, could be discouraging would-be thieves.

But the drop mirrors an overall decline in robberies and burglaries in Denver this year. From January through April, there were 1,453 burglaries and 336 robberies, according to Denver police. There were 1,527 burglaries and 352 robberies during the same period in 2013.

Overall, violent and property crimes are down in Denver since the start of recreational marijuana sales as well.

“We don’t have one real answer, but we look to the economy and other factors as to why crime goes up and down,” said Sonny Jackson, a Denver police spokesman. “Traditionally, it’s been trending downward for the last few years.”

The city has, though, seen more arrests for drug violations — 865 so far in 2014, compared with 711 at the same time in 2013. And incidents of disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace are up significantly, according to the city’s crime stats. Jackson said the higher numbers are likely the result of officers cracking down on illegal drug sales and public use.

“These arrests are the result of proactive police work,” he said. “Our officer productivity has gone up considerably.”

Real police report: 1 gram of pot reported stolen

The burglaries at marijuana businesses appear to have no particular pattern. They occur most frequently in the largely industrial north Denver ZIP code of 80216, which has seen 14 burglaries so far this year. There is another cluster among marijuana businesses along South Broadway — where eight burglaries have occurred this year.

Only nine of the 44 unique addresses targeted for a burglary or robbery have been hit more than once this year. And state marijuana regulators have suspended the license of the most-hit store in Denver this year: the Green Thumb Organics medical marijuana dispensary and cultivation facility on Pearl Street in north Denver.

Since the beginning of the year, burglars struck the store three times, each time taking dozens of marijuana plants, according to the state Marijuana Enforcement Division’s order of summary suspension sent to Green Thumb Organics. Burglars also struck the store last October, according to the document.

The burglaries led state auditors to uncover numerous alleged compliance violations, ultimately leading the state to accuse Green Thumb Organics of illegally possessing 1,559 marijuana plants and 359 ounces of marijuana and marijuana products. Other alleged violations included inadequate security camera coverage and poor record keeping. State regulators wrote in the suspension order that the violations “compromised the Licensed Premises.”

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Late last week, the Green Thumb Organics facility appeared abandoned, with miscellaneous plant supports piled into garbage cans outside. On the door was a handwritten note: “No marijuana in building. Removed by MED.”

But stores not in regulatory hot water are also at risk for crime. Earlier this year, Denver police said they have received “credible information about a plot to rob marijuana dispensary couriers.” Elliott said the danger will likely remain until marijuana businesses have a banking solution — something not likely to happen anytime soon.

“We’ve got to keep working on this,” he said. “Quite frankly, it’s scary.”

John Ingold: 303-954-1068, jingold@denverpost.com or twitter.com/johningold

This story was first published on DenverPost.com