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For Maine’s Marijuana Industry, Security’s Still High-Risk

By Penelope Overton Portland Press Herald, Maine

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Penelope Overton reports, "The lack of traditional banking options puts the cannabis industry at risk, forcing the biggest growers to hire security to move products and financial assets between grow houses, dispensaries and offices."

Portland Press Herald, Maine

Using crowbars and jackhammers, thieves broke into Dawson and Kelly Julia's medical cannabis grow in Unity two years ago, forcing their way past a locked steel door and boarded-up window to steal 60 marijuana plants valued at more than $50,000 from this husband-and-wife caregiver business.

In under an hour, East Coast CBD's entire marijuana crop was gone.

"Up here in Maine, I felt pretty safe, especially considering my mission," Dawson Julia said. "I mean, I grow a plant that helps sick people, right? But I learned the hard way. Yeah, it's still Maine, it is safe and it is a great community, but we're all cash, we grow a valuable plant that can be sold on the black market and to top it off, the law says I can't even use a firearm to defend myself."

Since the Valentine's Day 2016 robbery, the Julias have spent $20,000 to install layers of roll-down steel doors, a camera system and motion-triggered internal and external security systems. Most importantly, they now have two workers living in the building that doubles as both a grow facility and retail shop, providing round-the-clock in-person surveillance.

In his new role as a private security consultant, Scott Durst, a retired Maine drug agent, leaves Wellness Connection in Portland recently to transport the pot dispensary's earnings from its mostly cash-based business.

The lack of traditional banking options puts the cannabis industry at risk, forcing the biggest growers to hire security to move products and financial assets between grow houses, dispensaries and offices.

The crime risk varies from grow to grow, from crimes of opportunity, like stealing outdoor plants, to deadly home invasions. Advocates claim the industry is safer than alcohol or tobacco, but no Maine agency is keeping track of crimes against the cannabis industry, and many who are victimized don't go to the police, believing they won't investigate or fearing it might taint the industry's public image.

"We've got our hands full trying to figure out the public safety part of a law that most of us didn't want, like how to keep people who are high off our roads, so we haven't really gotten into the security part yet," said Robert Schwartz, retired South Portland police chief and head of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. "We're in a funny spot, but we don't want anyone getting robbed or hurt."

Maine lawmakers and police, many of whom opposed legalization, are leaving it up to the marijuana industry to figure out how to keep itself safe, at least for now. The state will write the rules governing its recreational marijuana market over the next year. That's when it will tackle how cannabis cultivation and retail facilities must be secured.

Former Maine agent steps into new role Until then, security in Maine's marijuana industry remains largely unregulated.

As a result, security measures vary wildly across the industry, from caregivers who rely on discretion and karma to ward off criminals, to those who let it be known they will use force to protect their grows in spite of a federal firearm prohibition on marijuana users, to the high-volume dispensaries using retired drug enforcement agents and armored trucks to move their cash.

"The marijuana industry is a very soft target," said retired Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officer Scott Durst, a security consultant who works for Maine dispensaries.

There is a lot of money at play. The medical market is valued at about $50 million, split among eight dispensaries and about 3,000 caregivers. By 2022, after the adult-use system has had two or three years to mature, the Maine market is expected to hit $265 million, according to the 2018 market report from Arcview Market Research & BDS Analytics.

In Maine, still-developing state laws focus more on public safety than industry safety, and on security measures for larger dispensaries, which must have exterior lighting, an alarm system, panic buttons, locks and a video surveillance system, rather than caregivers, which are only required to discourage theft by keeping cannabis in an enclosed, locked space out of public view.

But a new state law that allows caregivers to serve more than five patients at a time out of storefronts rather than their homes may lead to larger caregiver businesses that resemble mini-dispensaries, making it more likely that whatever security rules are written to apply to the coming wave of adult-use grows, labs and stores will eventually be applied to medical businesses, too.

If Maine follows Colorado's lead, it will leave its upcoming security rules vague and their implementation up to the individual businesses, said Andrew Freedman, Colorado's former marijuana czar. Colorado learned its lesson after rolling out overly detailed security rules for its medical marijuana market in 2010, which it later repealed for both medical and its first-in-the-nation adult-use market.

Local marijuana advocates like David Boyer, head of Maine's Marijuana Policy Project chapter, and Paul McCarrier, a new shopkeeper himself and president of Legalize Maine, like the idea of leaving industry security up to the industry rather than the rulemakers, making it less likely a costly security requirement would shut Maine's small growers out.

A handful of entrepreneurs like Durst, Seacoast Security of Rockport and HSL Security of Naples are jumping in to position themselves ahead of the state and local permitting of adult-use businesses, hoping regulators will favor applicants who are fully insured and have a sophisticated security plan designed by professionals.

HSL's Josh Haller is going so far as to develop a plan for a storage facility for marijuana deposits, protected round-the-clock by guards.

'NO BACKSTOP' FOR SECURITY Growers like Chad Crandall and Emily Isler, a husband-and-wife caregiver team out of Jay, say they invested in a farm security system to secure insurance designed to cover the marijuana side of their farm operation in 2011, back when there weren't that many insurance companies willing to cover cannabis grows. California-based Next Wave Insurance insisted on a full security plan.

At first, Crandall and Isler didn't like the idea of having cameras all over their farm, but they have come to appreciate the other benefits, like increased work productivity -- he can be out working in the field right up until a patient pulls into his driveway -- and monitoring crops, fuel deliveries and the well-being of his farm animals, all right from his phone.

"I don't live in fear; it's just not my style," says grower Chad Crandall, whose operation in Jay is outfitted with surveillance cameras and motion sensors. But he admits: "The cameras, the security system, it gives me peace of mind."

"You see all kinds of interesting things on the cameras," Crandall said. "They caught the fox that was eating my chickens."

Over time, as his business has grown to include marijuana processing as well as cultivation, the security system has evolved to include extensive camera surveillance, motion sensors on all the doors and windows and driveway alarms monitored by Crandall as well as his security company, Seacoast Security. His best alarms, however, remain his Australian cattle dogs.

Extra cash is not a problem, he said with a laugh -- all the money goes back into the farm, which he is constantly improving.

"When we made the decision to do this, to do cannabis as a business, we quickly realized we were playing in a field with no backstop," Crandall said. "I don't live in fear; it's just not my style, and we do live in Maine. There's really not a lot of bad that happens here, but the cameras, the security system, it gives me peace of mind."

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