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Pot shop robberies spur push to end restrictions on window displays

Window coverings can encourage thieves who know their crime won’t be seen once inside, some owners say
Customers enter the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation cannabis store in Halifax on Oct. 17, 2018. A spate of cannabis store robberies has many in the industry calling for provinces to relax regulations requiring window coverings or cannabis to be kept out of sight of minors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

When Elisa Keay works at her Toronto cannabis store, the days feel long and dark — even when the sun is bright.

The gloominess comes from the frosted windows that adorn K’s Pot Shop in Leslieville, blocking out the weather or even who is about to walk into her store.

The windows are frosted to comply with regulations requiring pot be shielded from the view of minors, but Keay and others argue the requirements should be dropped because they are leaving workers feeling closed off from their neighbourhoods and their stores more likely to be targeted by robbers.

“You start to feel very isolated, like you’re sitting in a box and the world’s going by on the street and you realize how disconnected you are,” said Keay.

Even more worrisome, she said, is the fact that window coverings can encourage theft because they give cover to anyone inside and prevent pedestrians from noticing a crime underway as they pass a store.

“Nobody can see what’s happening inside,” said Keay.

“I have a number of colleagues and friends in the industry who have had their stores held up at gunpoint and have had assaults happen inside their stores … That opportunity is very real because of those window coverings.”

Her employees carry panic buttons in the event they’re caught up in a robbery.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which regulates the province’s cannabis retailers, said stores must ensure cannabis products are not visible from the shop’s exterior.

“Ontario retail cannabis stores are able to make their own decisions as (to) how they meet the standards, and as such are not required to cover their windows or block visibility into the store,” said spokesman Raymond Kahnert in an email.

To avoid covering their windows, some have built a walled off entryway that blocks the view into the store, but Keay said they can be difficult to construct in small spaces, so relaxed restrictions like those implemented in Alberta are preferred.

A “significant rise” in robberies, particularly in Calgary, prompted Alberta’s cannabis regulator to allow stores to take down window coverings last summer.

News reports in the lead up to the regulator’s move detailed a spate of incidents where robbers, who were sometimes armed, entered stores to steal cash and weed, leaving workers shaken.

“Use of violence and weapons has occurred in some commercial robberies, and the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission is concerned for the safety of staff, customers and responding police officers,” Dave Berry, the regulator’s executive vice-president, said in an August letter to stores announcing the change.

Jaclynn Pehota, the executive director at the Retail Cannabis Council of B.C., said she’s unaware of any other province that has relaxed regulations around window coverings to the extent that Alberta has.

However, she said the Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch (LCRB), which regulates pot in British Columbia, removed rules requiring weed stores to be enclosed with non-transparent walls.

But Pehota said the relaxation didn’t spur a change because stores must still ensure cannabis products, which come in plain packaging that must not entice youths, cannot be seen from outside.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have to have opaque windows, if you have a regulation that says you can’t see any cannabis or cannabis products from the street and you have a storefront that’s all windows,” she said.

David Haslam, communications director for B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, said the LCRB “understands that some businesses continue to experience challenges, even though the requirement was removed, and is actively working with the cannabis industry and other stakeholders to address this issue in the interest of public safety.”

Pehota intends to keep pushing regulators to relax their window covering and visibility rules and is using safety as one of the top motivators.

She said she has heard from at least eight retailers who experienced break-ins recently, including several that turned violent.

“We had an instance where there was somebody who ended up getting tied up and left in their shop for a period of time and nobody knew that poor person was in there,” she said.

“My concern is that it’s going to get worse before it’s better and I’m worried that somebody is going to get seriously hurt.”

High Tide Inc., which has 151 stores in five provinces and has experienced armed robberies, had similar worries, which encouraged it to advocate for Alberta to remove regulations prohibiting pot products from being visible from a store’s exterior.

Now, it’s calling on other provinces and the federal government to copy such legislation, which it said will counter the fact that “criminals can run amok without fear of public scrutiny from outside of the store.”

“In many cases these gangs steal legal cannabis products for the purpose of diverting them to the illicit market where no age checks are in place,” Omar Khan, High Tide’s chief communications and public affairs officer, said in an email.

“Applying the new Alberta standard coast to coast will be a win for community safety.”

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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