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How will Alaska cops handle reports of pot theft after legalization?

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 3, 2015

This week "Peabody" wonders, "If someone was robbed for marijuana, how would law enforcement officers choose to respond, if at all?"

After polling Alaska's major law enforcement departments, the conclusion is pretty clear. If your legally compliant home garden or pot stash is robbed, pinched, cropped or burgled, you should not fear legal repercussions by reporting (unless you have other dirt going on), and officers will investigate your complaint like any other property crime. But that's not to say everyone will suddenly feel entirely comfortable identifying themselves as cannabis growers or victims of theft. People are still free not to report crimes for whatever reason they wish.

Megan Peters, public information officer for the Alaska State Troopers, said, "We can't help you unless you report it. But you as a victim have to decide whether to report it."

This may come as some surprise, but when it comes to this question, the legal status of cannabis hasn't mattered. Theft is still theft, just as robbery is still robbery. It's just that until recently, potentially alerting law enforcement to illegal behavior has been a strong deterrent to reporting such property crimes. And make no mistake, police do indeed investigate evidence of all crimes. If they're called to your house for one thing and discover evidence of other crimes, they are likely to follow up on those.

Read more Highly Informed: Seeking answers to Alaska's cannabis questions

When it comes to investigating crimes involving marijuana, Peters said: "The Alaska State Troopers will continue to objectively evaluate complaints of crimes committed against persons or property -- regardless as to whether the complaint involves the legal or illegal cultivation, possession, transportation, delivery or sale of marijuana."

Departments in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Wasilla and Palmer all expressed a variation of the same duty, that property crime involving marijuana or indoor-grow equipment is not treated differently from any other similar theft. Because of the uniformity of the responses, it's safe to assume the same goes for every department statewide, but if officials I didn't speak to read this and wish to add additional comments or sign onto what was said by other departments here, I'll update this column.

Investigator Dan Bennett, assigned as his department's public information officer, said, "The Wasilla Police Department would treat such a crime no different than a legally owned TV or other legally owned property." Bennett was speaking for his own department there, but his response there is representative of each department's response when asked specifically about legally compliant home gardens.

Fairbanks Police Department spokesperson Officer Doug Welborn said the theft of a home grow would be no different than the theft of "carrots, plants or flowers."

Referring to activity involving cannabis that may go beyond what's allowed, Welborn made an analogy to a situation involving another sort of criminal, often stigmatized behavior: "I received an inquiry a while back about a known prostitute (acting in that capacity at the time) who was robbed. Even though that person may have been conducting illegal activity at the time, they are still a victim and the case would be investigated as any other robbery would be."

Jennifer Castro, communications director for the Anchorage Police Department, said, "We already investigate armed robberies (home invasions and commercial businesses) regardless of the items taken. This is a violent crime. Burglaries to homes and businesses are also serious felonies and would continue to be investigated as well."

"In both crimes, the items taken from a person or location only need to be in legal possession of the victim to charge the suspect," Castro explained. "Sometimes the chance of later recovery of the property can be difficult for items that don't have identifiers on them such as serial numbers, engraving, etc. and this could pose a challenge for someone who for instance is trying to claim a pot plant is theirs (as with all property in proving that it belongs to you)."

Investigations have to start somewhere

It may give some long-time cannabis enthusiasts a queasy feeling to document their home grows so soon after the end of cannabis prohibition in Alaska, but it would be wise for home gardeners to record identifying information of equipment, and document as much as possible to establish ownership if anything gets stolen. But it has always been smart to document valuables that unsavory people may want to steal for themselves. Since plants and cured buds don't have serial numbers, it may be difficult to prove ownership of everything taken, but any investigation has to start somewhere.

All other circumstances aside, nothing has changed regarding property crimes themselves after certain amounts of cannabis became unequivocally legal to grow and possess in and out of the home. That duty to investigate will also remain the same when the legal, licensed industry comes online. The main change may come in society rather than law enforcement -- in other words, when people may start to feel safer in reporting crimes against them and their cannabis plants.

For the time being, grows for medical card holders and home grows of six plants, three of which can be flowering, are the only iron-clad no-sweat legal grows, and those are likely the ones people least fear reporting crimes against, although persistent stigma and consequences other than legal ones still may keep some theft victims from reporting loss of cannabis or related equipment.

Palmer Police Chief Lance Ketterling said that in his jurisdiction he's not aware of any legal home grows being reported stolen or robbed, but that in the past large grows there have sometimes been targeted.

Welborn, in Fairbanks, said his department also routinely investigates thefts and robberies involving illicit substances or activities, including those involving cannabis, but did not specify any recent cases of legal home grows being robbed. Troopers and departments in Wasilla, Palmer, Anchorage and Juneau reported no recent examples of thieves taking a home grow.

An ounce of prevention...

Palmer's Chief Ketterling said that because the very nature of a home burglary can be so dangerous, and it can leave victims feeling violated and fearing a host of unknowns, that his department would certainly investigate if it received such a report. "Having a home broken into is extremely traumatic, and it's something we're going to take seriously," he said.

Not every case is the same, but that potential danger is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the 2011 case in Anchorage in which a homeowner fatally shot two would-be robbers who broke into his home, where he kept a cannabis grow.

Welborn said of compliant home gardeners who may be victimized now that legalization has taken effect, "As long as the victim was acting within state regulations/laws they have nothing to fear by making the police report."

Castro encouraged Anchorage residents who may unfortunately become victims of a crime to contact police so they can assist. "People shouldn't have anything to fear if they are following the laws. We are always here to help, and to protect life and property," she said.

Palmer's Ketterling said, "If they're complying with the state laws, and their house is broken into, yeah, they shouldn't fear reporting to us."

Ketterling, who said that legal cannabis isn't an emotional a topic for his department as it may be for other communities, also offered a service that would help prevent property crimes in the first place.

Many thefts and burglaries result from thieves knowing about an easy opportunity, and for property owners, not presenting an easy target is wise, cannabis or not. After all, if an investment is worth making, it's worth protecting too.

"Any citizen in Palmer who wants any site safety inspection, please call," he said, "We're happy to offer that service. And it would be no different for this."

Have a question about marijuana news or culture in Alaska? Send it to cannabis-north@alaskadispatch.com with "Highly Informed" in the subject line.

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