Improving Store Safety

By: David Wylie

Window coverings on cannabis stores make them ‘soft targets’ for robberies, endangering employees and patrons.

Wearing a mask and hoodie, a brazen thief strides into a cannabis store.

Surveillance footage shows a lone employee wandering out of the back unaware of any threat until it’s too late. Caught by surprise, the employee puts their hands up and stumbles backwards. The thief doesn’t break stride and is immediately on top of the employee. There’s a scuffle for a second or two as the employee recovers and fights back. Then the assailant pulls a gun and points it at the employee’s face.

This scenario is all too common in cannabis retail, according to Jaclynn Pehota, executive director at the Retail Cannabis Council of British Columbia (RCCBC). She says laws forcing cannabis shops to cover their windows have branded them with a reputation as an easy mark. “Word gets out that these are soft targets,” she says. “You can go into them and hold them up with no particular consequence because response is really difficult for law enforcement. Budtenders come to me and ask, ‘Why is the stigma around cannabis more important than me being safe in my workplace?’”

The RCCBC lobby played a significant role in changing the rules in BC. Over six months, the organization logged about 60 incidents involving obstructed views and weapons inside licensed stores. They presented a report to the province, which followed up on those numbers and found even more cases.

Rules that Put People at Risk

After that, it took less than 90 days for the government in BC to let stores in the province open the view. BC’s Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch (LCRB) announced in a May 19, 2023 bulletin that it was repealing the requirements from regulations.

“The lack of visibility into some licensed or authorized cannabis stores is putting cannabis store operators, staff, and patrons at risk.”

“The lack of visibility into some licensed or authorized cannabis stores is putting cannabis store operators, staff, and patrons at risk. Display rules in the federal Cannabis Act are still in place,” noted the bulletin, adding, “The LCRB will instead have a term and condition prohibiting window displays of cannabis and cannabis accessories to people outside the store.”

Alberta made a similar change in August 2022 after a rash of robberies there.

Now Ontario’s alcohol and gaming commission is pondering following suit. The provincial government finished its consultation in July about changes to its regulations to repeal visibility restrictions.

Problem Rooted in the Cannabis Act

While provinces are responsible for retail and distribution, and as such developed their own regulations, they wrote the rules based on wording in the federal Cannabis Act.

Subsections 29 and 30 of the Cannabis Act, which cover the display of cannabis or cannabis accessories, clearly prohibit displaying cannabis in a way that’s visible to anyone under 19 years old, such as when walking by a store window.

“It is prohibited for a person that is authorized to sell cannabis to display it, or any package or label of cannabis, in a manner that may result in the cannabis, package, or label being seen by a young person,” according to the Act.

“That unnuanced wording is the root of the problem,” notes Pehota, explaining there was a natural inclination toward caution when regulations were written. “I would love to see that rule repealed federally,” she adds.

“It would be really nice for Health Canada to acknowledge that this is a very dangerous policy. It’s so non-sensical. The concerns about youth exposure are mitigated by the nature of the packaging and the advertising restrictions in the sector. It’s all opaque packaging. If you’re a child walking by a cannabis store, you see display cases with black jars, silver bags, and maybe some drink cans.”

“See-through storefronts are friendlier and more approachable.”

Pehota says see-through storefronts are friendlier and more approachable, and new cannabis users may feel more comfortable going into a store that doesn’t look “seedy”.

“What other stores have their window obscured?” she asks. She hopes that Ontario—Canada’s largest cannabis market—follows suit and allows stores to remove window obstructions.

Cut Off From the Outside World

Elisa Keay, owner of K’s Pot Shop on Toronto’s Queen St. E., has concerns over safety and stigma and notes that it isolates people inside. She says, “You’re really cut off. I want to look out my window and feel connected to the community.”

Keay said she understands that legal cannabis was new and needed a starting place, but it’s time to move forward. In fact, she argues that the act of hiding cannabis makes it even more desirable. “We’re making cannabis this forbidden fruit,” she states.

There is at least one store in Toronto that has clear windows. The store is designed so that people can see in but not see any product.

And the federal government does allow for wiggle room in the interpretation of the Act: “The Cannabis Act and its regulations do not prescribe how this is to be done. For example, a retailer may choose to have full window coverings at its retail location or modify their store design and product placement to ensure cannabis and cannabis accessories are not visible. Note that the provincial and territorial governments may have additional requirements in place (such as, specific security measures).”

A Gamechanger for Stores

With the change in legislation, Glenmore Cannabis in Kelowna, BC, has created a feature wall facing the window, covering it with a purple and green cannabis flower that pops at night under black light. Ron Halwa, general manager at the store, calls the eased rules a “gamechanger. It opened the entire store right up,” he says.

Staff can see customers coming through the window and get their usual purchases ready as they walk through the door, adding a bit of customer-service pizzazz.