Security measures are a critical component of any business, but they’re even more important for cannabis companies, which rely heavily on surveillance systems and other essentials not just to protect the high-value merchandise, but also for compliance with strict state regulations.
Having an improper security system or an inadequate security plan can put employees at risk, increase the likelihood of thefts and break-ins and open the door for state regulators to issue hefty fines and costly suspensions or, in a worst-case scenario, revoke a company’s cannabis business license, the lifeblood of any plant-touching entity in the legal marijuana industry. And in most cases, replacing the wrong equipment or overhauling an entire security plan is going to cost the company far more than if the system had been done correctly the first time.
“Don’t try to do your security on the cheap,” says Michael Morrison, president of LionHeart Security Services, an Arizona-based provider of security services and training. “The costs, both financially and in reputation, can destroy a business. Who wants to enter a cannabis store that has been robbed and had injuries, or worse, occur?”
“Don’t settle for the cheapest solution,” Blake Albertsen, Pacific Northwest regional sales manager for Salient Systems, adds. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
In some aspects, technology is giving cannabis companies a new set of tools with which to bolster their security in a way that wasn’t possible — or wasn’t widely available to marijuana businesses — even just a few years ago.
Smartsafe technology — led by companies like American Security Products and Triton Systems — takes cash management practices to a new level, helping reduce the potential for internal and external theft, as well as simple human error. These next-generation safes are rapidly replacing the gun safes and other multipurpose vaults so many cannabis retailers installed five to 10 years ago.
Within the retail environment, security technology is being employed in a way that protects the staff and the merchandise, without detracting from the shopping experience. For example, Artitalia Group’s ALT series of custom-designed display cases feature integrated, automated security components that provide an elegant balance of security and design to give retailers peace of mind without compromising on style.
High-tech surveillance equipment and video management systems, like those offered by Salient Systems, among other providers, give cannabis growers, processors and retailers an extraordinary amount of control, with functions and features that provide additional safety whether or not staff members are on-site.
Surveillance systems are a requirement of licensed cannabis businesses in every strictly regulated market in the country, and they’re one of the most frequent causes of fines and violations. Companies are often penalized for not maintaining video footage for long enough, not having cameras that cover all the required spaces inside a facility and not having cameras running 24 hours a day, among a wide range of other violations.
In Oregon, for example, of the eight companies that have entered settlement agreements in 2021 for rule violations, five involved violations related to the surveillance system or maintenance of the video records.
“No matter which area you’re trying to cover, both in grow areas and dispensary environments,
you want to make sure that the security system covers heads, hands and feet in every surveillance camera,” Albertsen says. “You want to monitor who is touching the plant, if the product has been placed somewhere else, such as pockets or in backpacks. You want to ensure there is nothing missing at the end of the day.”
Because compliance with the regulations is so important, Albertsen says cannabis companies should team up with a manufacturer and integrator that has experience specific to the marijuana industry.
“Look at the whole picture of what manufacturers can do to support your facility,” he says. “If the manufacturer does not have any experience in the cannabis space, then you should consider other options. You should also look at different levels of security: does the solution integrate to the seed-to-sale program or the access-control system? Those are very powerful tools to make sure your security system is solid for the cannabis space.”
But some security professionals say cannabis companies can drastically improve security at their cultivation, processing or retail facility by paying closer attention to the details and having well-written security plans, procedures and protocols. Ideally, this should happen before any plants, product or cash are brought into the facility, but it’s never too late to take a fresh look at the myriad issues that affect an operation’s safety and security. Many security system vendors and consultants will offer security assessments, as well as assistance in developing security procedures and the necessary training to staff.
Cannabis business owners may be experts in their field, but they should let a security expert design and implement the company’s security program, Morrison says.
“They will design it, implement it and test it.”
Denny Upton, a former police officer who now provides security services to a variety of companies in Arkansas, including cannabis dispensaries, echoes Morrison’s sentiment. Developing a true, workable security plan and including a training program for all employees is one of the most commonly overlooked steps for cannabis companies, he says.
Upton has a background in both law enforcement and security, but he’s careful to point out that those are not the same. Hiring a former police officer to oversee security might not be the best approach, unless that person also has an understanding of security.
“Law enforcement personnel are trained to enforce laws and reflect the standards of their community. Security is geared toward working for their employer,” Upton says.
Upton’s advice is to include security development at the earliest possible stages of a company, including the design of the building. Then ensure all employees are thoroughly trained. Training should include a strong program for new hires, as well as ongoing training for all employees.
Training is critical because Herzog and Morrison have found that staff often do not follow the established security plans, unless compliance is consistently reinforced by management.
“A specific example most commonly noted is leaving interior and exterior doors open for ease of access instead of ensuring they are secure at all times,” says Bill Herzog, director of operations at LionHeart Security Services.
“Leave a door propped open ‘for just a moment’ to let some fresh air in and that’s when the bad guy enters,” Morrison adds.
The security program must be followed “exactly as planned every day, and not just when one remembers to,” he says. “Many security programs can seem cumbersome and bothersome, but it is at the exact moment that someone does not follow the plan that the worst-case scenario can, and will, occur.”
Another commonly overlooked component of security plans relates to the transportation of product and cash, says Bill Herzog.
“In many cases no security coverage is provided for any of these activities, leaving the product/cash susceptible to theft during transportation,” he says. “Doors are usually open into the product area during delivery, leaving not only the product susceptible to theft but providing an access point to the product distribution areas and management offices which usually contain large amounts of cash.”
Managers often transport large amounts of cash to the bank for deposit. It’s not uncommon for these activities to be done in personal vehicles during nighttime hours.
“The fix for this is to ensure product/cash is protected by armed guards during all transportation and delivery times,” Herzog says.
But cannabis retailers, in particular, are constantly trying to balance the need for a security presence with the need for a friendly, welcoming retail environment. After all, whether it’s a medical dispensary or an adult-use shop, they want customers to enjoy their experience. An overbearing security guard or the look of bars on windows might be enough to convince a potential shopper to choose the next store down the road, especially as the cannabis industry becomes more competitive and consumers have more choices on where to spend their money.
“Security guards do not need to be the stereotypical big, mean guy, who only enforces rules and does not exemplify customer service,” Herzog says.
LionHeart’s new employee orientation focuses on customer service and “alternative ways to address issues that do not involve being aggressive and agitating during even the worst of confrontations,” Herzog says. “We expect our guards to be a friendly member of the team who will be strong and confident in handling situations but will also smile and welcome customers/patients onto the client’s property when they arrive.”
Upton says each dispensary “should develop their own security program, based on their clientele and community.”
While some cannabis retailers in the U.S. hire armed security guards, Upton says patients often say they feel uncomfortable at dispensaries where they’re approached by someone with a gun as soon as they’re entering the shop.
Upton’s security guards do not openly carry weapons. They wear a soft uniform, prominently identifying them as security. They are involved in meeting and greeting patients, but they do not participate in the check-in or sales processes, offer advice or interact with a patient after they’ve entered the building “unless it becomes necessary.”
Morrison says it’s worth taking a close look at the security procedures for banks and high-end jewelry stores. They could provide a blueprint for best practices on running a secure, yet customer-friendly, retail business.
“Both of these locations have daily heavy foot-traffic and must weigh security with ease of access,” he says. “Make it too easy and the bad guys will seize the opportunity. Make it too hard and the customers will stop coming in. It is a delicate balance, but it can be achieved if the cannabis business and the security company work hand-in-hand to create a welcoming, but safe environment.”