An Oklahoma case involving a Black marijuana business owner charged with first-degree murder is focusing a spotlight on how both race and security protocols can be major issues and stumbling blocks for cannabis entrepreneurs.
Marijuana grower and military veteran LaRue Bratcher is awaiting trial after he shot and killed a man who was allegedly trying to break into his cultivation facility in Oklahoma City last year.
If convicted, he could face life in prison or even the death penalty, Yahoo News reported.
One key element in Bratcher’s case: He’s Black, and the alleged burglar, Daniel Hardwick, was white.
Bratcher initially landed in legal hot water after the shooting because his grow, which he founded in 2018, had an expired license.
He couldn’t afford nearly $100,000 in required upgrades and was waiting to renew his paperwork with Oklahoma’s MMJ authorities until he got everything in order, according to Yahoo News.
Bratcher kept the grow running in the meantime.
After the shooting, Bratcher was charged with operating an illegal grow site, and police confiscated his 480 plants, worth an estimated $1.5 million, Oklahoma City TV station KWTV reported.
That felony marijuana charge was paired with a second-degree murder charge, which was later upgraded to first-degree murder.
The murder charge comes with an added wrinkle: Oklahoma has a “stand your ground” law, which allows residents who are in fear for their lives to respond to threats with deadly force without fear of criminal charges.
But authorities say it doesn’t apply to this case, because Bratcher was running the grow operation illegally without a permit, so prosecutors asserted that “any self-defense clause is thrown out,” Yahoo News reported.
According to the arrest affidavit prepared by local law authorities, Bratcher’s cultivation license expired in November 2019, and he had not filed follow-up documents with the state to renew it.
Since he did not have an active business license to cultivate marijuana legally, he was likely guilty of second-degree murder, a police detective wrote in the affidavit.
“During an interview with investigators, the defendant admitted he ran out of money to further the operation, and did not obtain the required licenses” to run the MJ grow, the affidavit states. “He also admitted to selling the plants to individuals, which is prohibited.”
Bratcher also faces criminal charges for illegally growing marijuana, intent to distribute marijuana and possession of a dangerous weapon while committing a felony.
Bratcher’s trial is set for Oct. 11, according to court records.
The case could produce significant ripple effects as the country continues grappling with a broader racial reckoning and the marijuana industry remains a target of criminals who are aware that cannabis businesses are cash-heavy, industry insiders said.
In the view of some, Bratcher’s case underscores two key issues:
- How minorities in the United States face heightened suspicion from law enforcement.
- The stigma that continues to surround the cannabis industry.
Bratcher’s case is “horrifying” and should serve as a call to action for the rest of the industry, said Amber Littlejohn, the executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association.
“If I don’t file a piece of paperwork, I could be guilty of a felony and lose my right to defend … their families or themselves,” Littlejohn said, summarizing Bratcher’s case.
“That is devastating, and I really believe the industry itself should be up in arms. This is not a precedent we can tolerate.”
Littlejohn said she was “incensed” when she read about Bratcher’s situation and pointed out that Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater, who made the call to charge Bratcher, faced criticism a year ago for filing criminal terrorism charges against Black Lives Matter protesters.
“So this is his jam,” Littlejohn said. “We will be bringing attention to this. … This is a gross miscarriage of justice, and it’s our duty to try to bring it to light.”
Bratcher’s attorney, Clay Curtis, said he believes Bratcher’s race and his work with cannabis are why the district attorney filed criminal charges.
“I certainly believe both those things play a role, especially the weed business. I think the truth is that … the (district attorneys) are not happy about these changes in marijuana laws,” Curtis said.
“Marijuana is big business for law enforcement: Civil asset forfeiture, not to mention the arrests and prosecutions and costs and fees they collect, that’s a big source of revenue for them.
“Not only have we taken that away, but we have empowered people they have treated hostilely for years and years.”
Terry Blevins, a former police officer and CEO of California-based marijuana security firm Armaplex, said he has little doubt race played a role in Bratcher’s case.
“If it was a white man, do you think he would be charged? My personal feeling is, probably not. Especially if it was a white man defending his business and the perpetrator was a Black man,” said Blevins, who is also a board member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform.
“We know for a fact that whenever a Black person defends themselves from crime, and a person is killed or injured, they’re just judged by a different set of standards,” Blevins said. “They’re not given the benefit of the doubt. And it happens over and over and over.”
The Oklahoma City District Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment from MJBizDaily.
Takeaways for other entrepreneurs
Oklahoma attorney Sarah Lee Gossett Parrish, who helps businesses such as Bratcher’s get licensed, said she was “shocked” by how the case has played out.
“This is nuts,” Parrish said. “It’s a horrible situation. It just makes me sick.”
Parrish also said one of the takeaways for other marijuana business owners is, if in doubt, follow the letter of the law when it comes to operations.
That means Bratcher should have either reapplied for his license or closed the business – even if it meant sacrificing all of his plants, she said.
“Renew that license, and don’t operate without one,” Parrish said. “Because if you’re operating without a license, you’re committing a felony.”
She added this is another example of how worthwhile it is to invest in quality security infrastructure, even beyond what the state or local government may require.
“There’s no such thing as too many security cameras,” Parrish said.
Parrish didn’t second-guess Bratcher’s decision to have a firearm at his place of business, particularly because there have been so many violent robberies in the industry.
“I think it’s fine to have a weapon there. I’d be concerned not to, given today’s environment,” Parrish said.
Blevins, however, disagreed and said from a security standpoint he always advises clients against having firearms on-site.
Blevins said it’s rare that robberies of marijuana businesses turn violent. When they do, it’s typically because the target of the robbery is trying to resist or scare the offender away, as Bratcher did.
That’s when things can go wrong, he advised, so the safest course is to give the criminals what they want.
“My first recommendation would be no weapons whatsoever on a cannabis site,” Blevins said. “It’s a much greater chance it could be used in a situation that turns bad, like this one.”
John Schroyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.