Photo courtesy of Monarch Wellness Center

When a string of dispensary robberies occurred in Phoenix, Ariz., in spring 2017, it served as a wakeup call for dispensary owners and employees in the state’s capital. At Monarch Wellness Center in neighboring Scottsdale, Assistant Operations Manager Miles Bergquist and the rest of the Monarch team seized the opportunity to give their security procedures a rigorous review and learn from others’ mistakes. For Bergquist, it was reassuring. “It really gave us reflection and built our confidence in the things that we were doing,” he says. But for many dispensaries, finding the right balance between a secure shop and a non-intimidating environment isn’t easy.

Mistakes That Make Your Dispensary a Target

Monarch watched video surveillance from the Phoenix robberies on YouTube. “We saw a lot of things being done wrong. Doors were left unlocked; no one was checking IDs,” Bergquist says. Many other security mistakes made by dispensaries are not as obvious, however.

Ted Daniels, CEO of National Cannabis Security Services (NCSS), believes many dispensaries unwittingly open themselves up for crime by ignoring traditional retail principles. “The No. 1 thing I see coast-to-coast that makes [dispensaries] vulnerable is that a lot of them don’t realize they’re still in the retail industry,” he explains, pointing to interior and exterior shop aesthetics. “You can either have them set up like the Dollar Store or like Nordstrom. You want to create a culture of respect and professionalism that repels criminals,” he says.

Tom Siciliano, president of Canna Security America (CSA), sees many dispensaries fail at two primary entry points: the initial lobby entrance and the door into the dispensing area. “Oftentimes those doors are not secured or the access points to them are not controlled enough,” he says. As a result, more than one person may slip through when the person checking IDs unlocks the door. Siciliano advises dispensaries to sync the lock systems on entry points to ensure that only one person can pass through at a time.

“I think it’s the small things that dispensaries overlook that are going to be the big things that get them in trouble.” Ted Daniels, CEO, National Cannabis Security Services (NCSS)

Security Miscues That Cross the Line

While barred windows and doors may be unfortunate necessities in some locations, those aren’t the only security measures that often send some potential customers somewhere more inviting.

Daniels sees many dispensaries cross the line that separates security from intimidation by hiring the wrong people. “That’s the second biggest mistake I see. A lot of dispensaries hire their own in-house security, and they hire big, monstrous guys that have no people skills and no personality. They’re just rude and arrogant,” he says. “They have to know how to talk to people. You’d always rather talk yourself out of a fight than go hands on.” (More on this later.)

Other significant missteps in Daniels’ eyes include brash, overtly military clothes and weapons paired with lax, untrained personnel. “The other end of the spectrum is the 22- or 23-year-old guy standing in the back room, so you can see him from the counter, with the tactical hat on, the tactical vest and all that stuff,” he says.

Bergquist explains: “It can be very intimidating to people new to the industry to even come into a dispensary. It still has that black-market stigma.” Security needs to be effective so that customers and employees feel safe, but they also need to feel at ease. Here are eight non-intimidating ways to secure your space:

1. Hire the right security personnel.

Because security personnel are typically the first employees your customers encounter, a positive interaction—one that leaves customers feeling safe and welcome instead of monitored and intimidated—draws them in and keeps them coming back. Having the right person in that spot makes the difference. Daniels encourages dispensaries to avoid guards with a hard-edge attitude. “You want to go with guys that are confident, that have the communication skills to deal with people … yet you know that if the s--- were to hit the fan, this guy’s been there before,” he explains.

Siciliano agrees that people skills are essential for security personnel and dispensary employees. The wide age range of people coming in and purchasing for medical benefits or recreational use requires someone who can make that customer feel comfortable, secure and at ease. “You need to have someone that is customer-centric. That person that’s in there either checking the ID or acting as security is a little bit intimidating. It’s that customer-centric piece that is important,” he says.

NETA, a medical dispensary in Brookline, Mass., is housed in a refurbished bank. Opting for a clean and professional design is one way dispensary owners can make customers feel comfortable while deterring crime.
Photo courtesy of NETA

2. Skip the military-style/security attire.

Rather than traditional uniforms, NCSS opts for what Daniels calls “soft uniforms” for security personnel in dispensaries. Guards wear cargo-style pants and polo shirts with the security firm’s logo. “When people come in, they’re going to know that guy’s security. Professionalism goes a long way,” he says.

Siciliano agrees: “We try to have our employees be as recognizable, but as diminished as possible. We don’t believe in having full body armor, two or three weapons and camouflage.” He believes that presence transcends physical size and gender.

3. Hire guards who know how to avoid dangerous conflict.

With the amount of product and cash typically on hand at dispensaries, Siciliano believes guards should be armed with a very discreet weapon on their side. “The individual you have in that location should know how to carry a weapon, how to use a weapon, and—most importantly—how to not use a weapon,” he says. “The intention is never to have that weapon come out. … The intention is to be able to calm down and talk through a situation with somebody that may be a little bit hostile.”

4. Opt for discreetness.

At Monarch Wellness Center, a safe, welcoming environment for customers and employees starts outside. The only clue that a marijuana dispensary is in the medical office park is a discreet butterfly logo and a sign that says “Monarch.” A uniformed, badged guard hired through a private professional-security firm stands outside in easy view from the street.

“You want to go with guys that are confident, that have the communication skills to deal with people, who are friendly, who are polite, who smile—yet you know that if the s--- were to hit the fan, this guy’s been there before.” Ted Daniels, CEO, National Cannabis Security Services (NCSS)

5. Create a professional retail environment.

Professionalism also extends to the Monarch staff. “We have dress codes. Our employees dress business attire, so we try to break a lot of those marijuana stereotypes. We’re very professional, and we take what we do very seriously. I think that really helps to break that intimidation factor and help customers feel safe,” Bergquist says.

6. Be prepared with an emergency plan.

Both Daniels and Siciliano stress the importance of having standard operating procedures (SOPs), emergency protocols and equipment in place.

Protocols to have in place include everything from code words to lockdown procedures and designated “safe places.” The Monarch team has quarterly meetings and regular drills to practice what to do should an event occur.

An excellent working relationship with the Scottsdale police department is a big part of its security. “We invited Scottsdale police in to give recommendations and to get them familiar with our layout.” The relationship has helped staff build confidence in themselves and the emergency measures in place. “With marijuana, that may seem weird to some people, but don’t be timid. Reach out to law enforcement,” he says.

7. Ensure your surveillance system is constantly monitored and won’t go down.

While cameras and other security equipment are required in most markets, many dispensaries lack a backup plan. “It’s vital to make sure that your backup equipment and your recording device is recording accurately, and you have a battery backup,” Siciliano warns. “[If] the power goes out, you’ve got no battery backup and you lose everything.”

Monarch uses 24-hour surveillance cameras—from every possible angle inside and outside the building. Those cameras are monitored on- and off-site.

“We're very professional, and we take what we do very seriously. I think that really helps to break that intimidation factor and help customers feel safe.” Miles Bergquist, assistant operations manager, Monarch Wellness Center

8. Equip staff with silent alarms.

Guards at Monarch carry walkie talkies and portable silent alarms that notify the local police department. Inside, silent alarms are located throughout the store.

What to Look for in a Security Firm

Daniels and Siciliano urge dispensary owners to hire professional security firms rather than hiring in-house. They also advise to hire firms with solid experience in the cannabis industry. One reason is liability. Professional firms should be properly insured. “I think having your own employees ... acting as a security guard causes problems,” Siciliano says. “As a dispensary owner, now you’re liable for your employee.”

Daniels and Siciliano believe security professionals proven in the cannabis space are better equipped than dispensary owners or employees to determine the best security tactics for your business.

Before doing business with a security firm, Daniels advises dispensary owners to thoroughly research firms in contention for the job. “Google them! Don’t rely on their website,” he says. “There are several highly legitimate cannabis security firms out there on the market now, but everybody is trying to get in this field.”

Siciliano also suggests looking beyond guards and current needs to ways professional security firms can support your business, particularly in product and cash transport. “The scary thing for me is when I see dispensary owners literally say, ‘We’re busy here. Hey, Bobby, why don’t you go take this bag of cash to the bank?’” Siciliano says.

In securing your dispensary and creating a safe, non-intimidating environment, everything from a bank run to a welcoming smile at your door counts. “I think it’s the small things that dispensaries overlook that are going to be the big things that get them in trouble,” Daniels says. Finding the right balance for your dispensary can keep big and small things on track.

Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer and former horticulture professional.