Guarding Cannabis Businesses: Security Lessons for an Emerging Market

Professionally securing cannabis businesses and facilities is a relatively new endeavor that comes with unique challenges. While security professionals have taken what they have learned from traditional high-risk businesses such as banks, jewelry stores, and pharmacies, cannabis businesses are threatened by risks not typically seen in other businesses. Additionally, with the legal cannabis market still young, security professionals lack the data used to track trends in criminal methodology that allow them to develop well-defined security best practices. That is why we have taken the information and lessons learned from the leaders at Xiphos. They have been providing security services to cannabis businesses since state governments legalized the market.

To provide competent security services to the cannabis industry, understanding how this business differs from traditionally threatened businesses is needed. One of the more obvious factors in the cannabis space is that the plant itself, particularly after harvest, is considered a cash crop, easy to move and disperse on the black market. Additionally, before California passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) in 2016, many cannabis operators existed in a gray space, making them a target by bad actors who remained in the illicit market. These operators would see dangerous and brazen attacks on their property that would at times involve multiple hostile elements in vehicle convoys, automatic weapons, advanced burglary tools, and military-style infantry tactics and techniques.

To address the security issues new cannabis businesses were facing, California began updating security regulations and requirements through government entities such as the Bureau of Cannabis Control, CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing, and Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch. The attempt to standardize security practices for the cannabis industry led to wide knowledge gaps between security and cannabis that would need to be bridged by professional security consultants and organizations. Cannabis business owners would need assistance with complex and robust security plans and threat and vulnerability assessments to operate legally in California. Furthermore, the involvement of local police departments or Sheriff’s offices are often required and allows for the opportunity that the safety and security planning could be reviewed and approved by the very entities who would respond to a security event.

While security plans and threat assessments provide tools and resources that help businesses respond to and predict criminal attacks, it does not stop the attempts that are made on the operators by criminal elements. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the common techniques and the evolution of criminal methodology we see in the attacks against cannabis organizations. In addition to standard, brute force methods commonly utilized by criminals, cannabis businesses fall victim to other tactics and techniques. These techniques include an increased display of firearms attempting to shoot at security personnel, increased attempts to break structures using heavy equipment and vehicles to ram bay doors and fences, and increased use of lookouts and attempts to case properties.

There have also been many reports showing criminal elements using more sophisticated methodologies to target cannabis businesses specifically. These include:

  • Infiltration: Criminal elements being hired legitimately only to work a few days to survey their next target before attempting a robbery or burglary.
  • Drone Surveillance: Arrests have shown that individuals use drones to perform reconnaissance to prepare for an armed robbery based on the drone footage.
  • Feint Attacks: Bad actors will feint attacks and commit distraction theft
  • HUMINT (or human intelligence): Criminal organizations will attempt to befriend cannabis business employees outside of the work environment to garner actionable information.

This list is not an exhaustive list of possible measures criminals will use. Still, it allows us to provide creative solutions and countermeasures to mitigate the risks cannabis businesses face daily.

Some of the best countermeasures we utilize include:

  • Guard towers, mezzanines, or other elevated positions
  • Soft armor and plate carriers
  • Fortified entry points and DefenseLite or similar window film or shatter-resistant panels
  • Controlled paths of travel
  • Video and photo evidence of unique identifying information
  • Tethered drones with thermal capabilities where necessary

However, of all the tools and resources available to the security community, our most effective strategy has been educating the cannabis business units on the threats they face. From the line employee to the c-suite member, a basic understanding of personal safety, workplace security, and cyber realm safety prevent groups at large from becoming victims to a criminal enterprise. Addressing them in an easily digestible format, explaining physical security best practices for employees in the workplace, and teaching the importance of identifying and protecting privileged information contributes to the business unit’s safety and security posture.

Lastly, we cannot overstate the importance of relationship building with law enforcement. There are certainly obstacles to this for cannabis businesses or a security vendor as both entities are not always viewed favorably by law enforcement departments. It is incumbent upon the legal cannabis market and security vendors to operate professionally and transparently. Furthermore, it is incumbent on the law enforcement agency to work in good faith with the community for the proactive preservation of life and property against nefarious attempts. Using this model, we believe that strong relationships can be built between cannabis business units, security professionals, and Sheriff and Police Departments.

As the cannabis industry continues to flourish throughout the country, we will continue to learn from our experiences and share our knowledge with our community so we all can learn to guard this new green to the best of our ability.