While an armed security guard is possibly the biggest deterrent to criminals that a cannabis operator could employ, they can also be an operator’s biggest liability if they mishandle a confrontation.
Security guards are commonplace at banks, bars, malls and events, and many states have strict protocols in place to certify or license a person for the position and to mandate how they should respond to a situation. But in the cannabis industry, the role of a security guard, aside from being a visual deterrent, is much more nebulous.
“There is little bit of catering to each client, so at some places they want the guard checking IDs and at another place they just want someone there at the door,” says Ben Thomas, founder and CEO of Viking Protective Services. “My preference is that armed security guards shouldn’t be distracted with other responsibilities because they need to stay sharp and see what’s going on. But as we move into the future with this new relationship between security and the cannabis industry, that will be ironed out.”
Part of the confusion over what security guards are allowed to do is from the industry’s gray-market past where operators would hire a friend for the position or someone who simply looks the part, without realizing the potential liabilities and laws governing armed guards.
“When I started focusing on the cannabis industry back in 2017 there were a lot of fly-by-night companies just hiring their brother-in-law and throwing a ‘security’ shirt him,” says Armaflex CEO Terry Blevin. “Now there’s a lot of competent, smart people doing it, but at the time, people were getting into a lot of trouble.”
In California, for example, cannabis operators can be fined by the state for hiring a security guard directly, Blevins says.
“A private company cannot hire a guard directly. They have to have someone supervising them who is licensed and has the training and experience to supervise that guard,” Blevins says. “It’s a $5,000 fine for each violation and most cannabis companies have no idea, because the enforcement has not been real tough.”
After California formed the Department of Cannabis Control in 2021, Blevins says agents began investigating security guards at cannabis operations to ensure they were currently licensed to be a security guard and licensed to carry weapons as well as verify there was a security supervisor onsite.
Thomas has seen similar changes in Washington’s cannabis market, especially after the state saw a significant uptick in dispensary robberies in 2021.
“There was a sudden demand for professional security because what a lot of these old companies were doing was just no longer suitable for the environment,” Thomas says. “They would have retired veterans or college kids on site, inexperienced and just trying to make a buck.”
Thomas says the sudden increase in crime helped operators realize how vulnerable they truly were and brought a higher demand for professional security providers. In Washinton, being a licensed security guard requires being older than 21, having a current firearms certificate issued by the state and passing a background check. Thomas says his guards are also licensed private investigators, meaning they have legal protection in performing their duties, which can include stopping someone from harming another person, detaining a violent person or, under certain conditions, using a weapon to incapacitate a transgressor.
According to a security survey by National Retail Federation, 26.5% of U.S. retailers saw a significant increase in organized retail crimes including robberies and product theft of nearly $100 billion during 2021. The survey found that many retailers were relying too heavily on security deterrents and now are moving to hire security professionals as well as using tracking devices on store products.
A study on the efficacy of security guards as a deterrent that was published in a peer-reviewed journal by the Public of Library of Science found that hiring security guards not only reduces theft, it reduces the threat to public safety and deters criminals from returning to the area.
The regulations for security guards vary by state and sometimes even municipality, but Blevins and Thomas both warn that operators are often responsible for the actions of their security guards and operators need to understand the regulations for security guards in their state and fully vet security providers before hiring them to work onsite.
“I’ve seen people invest millions of dollars in a company and then hire a fly-by-night security company and place themselves at horrible risk of losing everything,” Blevins says.