Art & Culture

Up in Smoke Again: The looters arrived and the call for help went unanswered

Up in Smoke Again: The looters arrived and the call for help went unanswered

Illicit weed, black-market weed, flooded Oakland’s streets and suites before looters robbed cannabis and cash from local dispensaries during the riots following George Floyd’s murder. Now, the city is even more saturated than ever before with illicit weed. Looters not only hit dispensaries, they also hit cannabis gardens, distributors and manufacturing centers. Reeling from the violence, Oakland and its citizens are haunted by the police department’s failure to protect private property. Something’s rotten and stinks like the Bay at low tide.

“Marijuana businesses are accustomed to being hit,” Dale Sky Jones tells me, during a long, one-sided phone conversation that might be called a rant. The Chancellor at Oaksterdam University—the world’s most prestigious institution devoted to the study of marijuana—Jones is outraged. And rightly so.

“For years, dispensaries were hit regularly by cops with badges,” he says. “During the riots, Oakland cops did nothing to protect them. They circled their own wagons, defended themselves and watched robberies go unchecked. Don’t get me wrong—I like 911 and the police. I want them to be held accountable. The industry pays taxes and deserves a fair return.”

Tariq Alazraie, a friend and dispensary owner with an indoor grow operation, was kidnapped, pistol-whipped and robbed during the riots.

“I’m okay,” he tells me on the phone. “It added a little excitement to my life.”

Not since the 1960s—when Oakland’s Black Panther Party demanded “an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people”—have cops been so widely denounced for their misconduct and criminality.

Debby Goldsberry—a longtime cannabis activist and the CEO at Magnolia Wellness, an Oakland dispensary—describes the break-ins as the work of “organized gangs.” One wonders what savvy gang isn’t “organized.” As one marijuana dealer tells me, “I’d hate to be a disorganized criminal.”

On the phone, Goldsberry tells me that at least 39 cannabis enterprises were hit in Oakland, that many won’t be able to reopen and that cannabis companies that weren’t hit are helping those that were.

“Magnolia paid $400,000 in taxes last year and got no support from the cops during the riots,” Goldsberry tells me. “The cops knew the riots were happening and could have warned us so we could have protected ourselves. They did nothing.”

Now, Goldsberry wants the city to waive fees for at least a couple of months so the industry can get back on its feet.

Cannabis dispensaries, gardens and manufacturing centers weren’t the only businesses thieves plundered during the riots. In the East Bay, at least 75 vehicles were stolen from a Dodge dealership. Pharmacies were looted. Prescription drugs, including opioids, found their way to Oakland streets already saturated with narcotics.

Go ahead and shed a tear or two for Oakland’s dispensaries, but don’t cry a river. In my view, they’ve been charging exorbitant prices for flowers, tinctures, oils and pre-rolled. A big part of the problem is the exorbitant taxes that Goldsberry and her ilk pay to state and local governments. But the dispensaries haven’t exactly been charitable institutions either.

Compassion has sometimes taken a back seat to profits. In an industry where the black market makes up an estimated 70 percent of sales, a legitimate enterprise is a tough row to hoe. Oakland’s Harborside—one of the largest dispensaries in California, with branches in San Jose and Desert Hot Springs—was apparently hit by looters and “cleaned out.” Some observers say windows were boarded up, though the company— founded by the legendary Steve DeAngelo, author of The Cannabis Manifesto —has issued no official information on the subject of looting. Under the heading, “We Stand by Our Community, Harborside’s website says all the right things: “Our hearts and deepest sympathies go out to the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. We are saddened by the senseless deaths and by the deep pain and division we are seeing across the country.” The site also says “Due to high volume, we are experiencing delays in our call center and home deliveries. We are working around the clock.”

Since the arrival of Covid-19, some dispensaries have recorded hefty sales. The consumption of both weed and alcohol has risen dramatically all over the Bay Area. What else was there to do during the lockdown? Have safe sex? Read Mumbo Jumbo by Oakland’s inimitable Ishmael Reed? Pass the bong and the edibles, darling.

The organized assault on dispensaries didn’t surprise me. Not long ago, a North Bay dealer drove to Oakland with a carload of weed, parked outside a dispensary and went inside to negotiate. Thieves broke into his vehicle, grabbed his weed and ran. The guy drove home, told me his tale of woe and retired from the biz.

Lest you think I have it in for Oakland, let me say that I love Oakland’s Jack London Square (despite London’s embrace of white supremacy), love the Oakland’s As and Oakland bookstores such as Pegasus.

Also, the City of Oakland has been exemplary in handing out “equity permits” to citizens who were victims of the drug war, arrested and sent to prison. Some citizens, including African Americans who received permits and opened dispensaries, were hit during the riots. Now they need help badly.

In the 1990s, I lived in a house near Oakland’s Rockridge Market Hall, one of the best places in the world to shop for food and drink. Briefly, I grew weed in the basement. Actually, I didn’t grow it myself. Weedsters approached the woman who owned the house, fixed up her basement and grew a crop. In return she received $800 a month. The weedsters had the same kind of underground operation all over Oakland, and they’re still at it.

Not long after the recent riots, I talked with a forty-something-year-old African American who has lived in Oakland for decades, works from home as a techie and earns over $100,000 a year. We shared a pizza ($33.85 for a large) from Zachary’s on College Avenue.

“Congo” attended a Catholic high school and UC Berkeley. A Silicon Valley giant snapped him up after graduation. He can afford Zachary’s pizza and dispensary weed, but he doesn’t like shelling out top dollar for pre-rolls, and, while he began to smoke as a teen, he has cut way back on consumption.

“Black-market cannabis is an essential part of the culture of Oakland, but weed isn’t really countercultural anymore,” he tells me. “It’s an anesthesia for the masses. Also, the quality of the weed has declined. It doesn’t look, taste or smell as good as it looked, smelled and tasted back in the day. A lot of weed is shipped out of state where it’s still illegal and you can triple the amount of money you can make in Oakland.”

Though he wasn’t smoking much weed anymore, he was protesting big time, inspired by heroes Malcolm X and Noam Chomsky.

“I went into the streets of Oakland with friends right after Trump came out and said, ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’” Congo told me. “We were tear gassed and the cops used ‘flash bombs’ against us. It was crazy. I was shocked at the force the Oakland police used. Now, I think we’re all heading for total disaster.”

I hope not. I also hope that Oaksterdam University reopens its doors and that Dale Sky Jones gets to act like the Chancellor again.

Ever since the pandemic the school has only offered virtual classes, on both the business and the horticulture of cannabis. Jones is proud of the way the institution responded to Covid-19.

“Students and teachers haven’t been tethered to the campus,” she says. “In some ways, classes have been better online than in person. There’s more opportunity for students to communicate with one another.”

Jones keeps a sharp eye on everything in Oakland.

“All of us in the cannabis industry are a scrappy bunch,” she says. “As a community, we need to rebuild, provide relief from taxes and give reassurances the police failure won’t happen again.”

Jones pauses a moment and adds, “We’re telling people: ‘Come to Oakland and buy cannabis.’”

Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.”

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