In cities across Canada, organized crime groups are coordinating large-scale theft from liquor stores. Employees have been assaulted and seriously injured during these thefts, and the stolen product is then used as street currency and re-sold to businesses that are willing to look the other way for a lower price. The financial losses associated with these thefts pale in comparison to the human cost.

The proceeds from this are used to support these criminal groups’ other activities, including violent crime and a cycle of exploiting vulnerable people. Secured entrances, where customers scan their ID before entry, have been shown to drastically reduce these thefts and the violence that rises from them.

Scanning in only takes a second, but it can save lives. By making secured entrances the standard for liquor stores, we can prevent thefts, stop assaults against employees and customers before they happen, and take away a currency that gangs use to spread violence and addiction in our communities.

1 – Liquor is stolen from retail stores

Thousands of dollars’ worth of product is stolen during each theft, usually from larger liquor stores.

The people stealing liquor are often armed with bear spray, mace, knives or guns. The thefts have turned violent, compromising the safety of both employees and customers – many liquor store employees across Alberta have been threatened, assaulted and injured. No retail worker should have to face that kind of risk every time they report for a shift.

Measures have been introduced in many stores to prevent this kind of violence, and over 500 arrests have been made. But as long as criminal organizations can make this much revenue from selling stolen liquor, the thefts will continue with new perpetrators stepping in to replace the old ones. Committing violent thefts is one way for low-ranking members of these organizations to “move up” in the organization, and in some cases people who owe the gangs more money than they can pay – often people suffering from addictions who have racked up drug debts – are coerced into committing thefts as a way to repay what they owe.

2 – Stolen bottles are used as street currency

The stolen product isn’t always re-sold right away. Instead, stolen bottles may change hands many times on the streets as they’re traded for other substances or services.

Stolen liquor may be traded for illegal drugs. People struggling with addiction who can’t come up with cash to pay their dealer are often forced to pay in stolen liquor instead.

Stolen bottles may also be used to pay “rent” in a gang-owned flophouse. These houses are dangerous places. They’re often unfit for human habitation according to health regulations, and assaults and overdoses are common. As illegal activity from these houses spills out onto the streets, neighbours are exposed to violence, disorder and other hazards such as used needles.

The people who are staying in these houses, and even the people committing the thefts, have often experienced severe trauma and are living with serious mental health and addiction issues. Criminal organizations take advantage and exploit these people for their own financial reward.

3 – Stolen product is re-sold

Eventually, criminal organizations convert stolen liquor into cash by selling it back to liquor stores, bars and restaurants that are willing to look the other way. Stolen bottles are typically sold at 50-75% of what they would cost to purchase from a legitimate supplier. This means significant savings for unscrupulous business owners, and a huge profit for the gangs – since they didn’t pay anything for the liquor in the first place, they can pocket the full price they receive for it.

This stage of the cycle is what drives the other two. Criminal organizations coordinate these thefts because they make a lot of money from re-selling stolen product – and they can only make money this way because someone is willing to buy it. Business owners who care more about their bottom line than the devastating harm caused by these organizations create the incentive that keeps the cycle going.

Break the Cycle

To customers of these establishments, it’s not obvious that anything is wrong. The stolen liquor looks and tastes just the same as it would if it came from legal sources. But there are still things you can do, as a customer, to help curb this cycle of crime and violence.

Look for the Legally Sourced Liquor badge the next time you’re treating yourself to a drink. Businesses that display this badge have made a public commitment to buying their inventory from legal sources only. And if you don’t see the badge at your local liquor store, bar or restaurant, ask about where that business gets its product.

If their sources are illegal, you might not get an honest answer. But even if you don’t, it shows business owners who buy stolen liquor that people are watching. The more attention we all call to this issue, the more it becomes part of the public conversation, the riskier it becomes for businesses to keep doing this – and when businesses aren’t buying anymore, the driving force behind these thefts disappears.