How Secure Is the Cannabis Industry?

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Illustration: Production Perig / Shutterstock

On March 31, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that legalized the adult use of cannabis, making his state the fifteenth in the United States (plus the District of Columbia) to approve the plant for recreational use. The law—which also expunges some previous marijuana convictions—is expected to generate millions of dollars in revenue for New York, as similar legislation did in the fourteen states whose legislatures were quicker on the draw.

But just as with other adult-use-legal states, New York’s legislation won’t stop crime at dispensaries—and retail shop owners largely are on their own to protect their businesses and employees.


So, how secure is the cannabis industry? Unfortunately, the answer may be “not very.”

For example, California legalized adult use in November 2016. The Los Angeles Police Department recorded more than 100 crimes at dispensaries in 2018; the figure rose by a little more than 10 percent to 115 crimes at dispensaries within the first nine months of 2019. In May and June 2020, a spree of burglaries occurred at dispensaries in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and other cities. The thieves made off with cash and product, and a female employee in Oakland was killed.

Colorado legalized adult use in 2012 and has had its share of dispensary-related crime, too. In one Colorado Springs episode, teenagers drove a van through a dispensary storefront and made off with jars of oregano the store displayed as stand-ins for dried weed. 

These reports and others like them demonstrate law enforcement cannot always protect dispensaries, leaving business owners to both find their own solutions (like contracted security guards and specialized equipment) and clean up the mess—physical and financial—when crimes happen.

Criminals are crafty, and they almost certainly will find a way to breach whatever digital and/or physical security measures a business employs. Combating criminals on several fronts simultaneously is inherently tricky, and one wrong decision can spell the difference between a business recovering and closing. While there are advantages to hiring a security guard for $20 an hour, that cost quickly adds up and doesn’t really ensure safety. As a result, an increasing number of dispensaries are turning to solutions that blend human security guards to protect their storefronts and artificial intelligence to protect their websites and other digital assets. AI-enhanced fixtures like lighting, cameras, and locks also play a role in keeping businesses, their employees, and their products safe.

I’m no stranger to the benefits of AI, especially with regard to personal and professional security. I founded Amazon’s AI-based consumer optimization team and helped craft the retail giant’s first AI algorithms—algorithms that set new standards for data personalization in today’s digital world.  Now I dedicate my time to helping cannabis business owners better understand how to prevent becoming a crime victim.

Although I’m a big proponent of AI-enhanced security systems, I also encourage business owners to remember the fundamentals, including:

Illumination: Install lighting all around your business. Criminals are less likely to commit crimes in well-lit areas, because they don’t want to be seen.

Doors and windows: Invest in secure, break-resistant doors and windows. In many cases new glass isn’t required. Films like 3M’s Safety & Security Window Film may provide adequate protection from break-ins.

Security system: Consider installing a comprehensive, proactive security system instead of a traditional reactive system that employs window and door sensors. Proactive systems use AI to detect and assess potential threats and prevent crime before it happens. Reactive systems wait for a break-in to occur.

Cash handling: Institute a strict and controlled chain-of-possession cash strategy. Know how cash flows through your business and secure it at every step. AI can help here, too, with biometric identification.

A final note for New Yorkers: In addition to securing your business, tell your customers to protect themselves. AI-enhanced security systems are widely applicable for home use, as well, and could prove valuable to New York residents who intend to take advantage of the new law’s clause that allows adults to grow up to twelve plants at home.

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David Selinger founded Deep Sentinel in 2016 when he saw the potential for artificial intelligence to reinvent the security industry. He started his career in research and development at Amazon, where he developed the first commercial product recommendation system. He is co-founder of Silicon Climate and an advisor to Opus 12, Gridcure, and the Rainforest Connection.