An ATM in the corner. An armed security guard by the door watching every movement of customers. As any legal weed buyer knows, these two characteristics of marijuana dispensaries in Illinois set them apart from the typical retail experience.
Legal marijuana sales are heavily restricted and federal laws prevent dispensaries from accessing traditional banks – which is why there is so much money. Considering all that money and expensive cannabis products, Illinois state law requires safety to be close at hand.
“We are dealing with weed and money, and it is high risk,” a local agent said recently as he stood outside a dispensary in the Near North. They did not want to be named, citing job security concerns.
More than two years later recreational cannabis sales, some dispensary owners are investing more in private security. Data obtained from the Chicago Police Department shows that the city’s 19 licensed dispensaries have reported 13 combined burglaries, attempted burglaries, and criminal damage reports since stores selling recreational marijuana opened in 2020 (the medical cannabis sales have been legal in Illinois since 2015). The burglaries have mostly occurred at businesses on the north side of the city, and the breaches — combined with vacancies in some retail areas near dispensaries and an increase in civil unrest during the pandemic — have led the dispensaries to invest in more private security guards, said the store owners and an industry consultant.
Timothy Sutton, senior security consultant at Guidepost Solutions who has worked with several dispensaries in Illinois, describes an “explosive increase” in security companies in the state. When dispensaries first opened, they were required to have security, but there was “no legal mandate as to how many security personnel a dispensary must have in place,” Sutton said. Some companies hired a security guard, for example, and then trained staff members to perform a security function. Others contracted all their security.
But it’s not just legal requirements that have contributed to the rise of security companies. Dispensary robberies have become more frequent in cities with a high density of dispensaries ranging from Tacoma to Oakland. Here in Chicago, police data shows six cannabis dispensaries and CBD stores have been robbed so far this year alone.
In 2020, Illinois became one of 11 states to legalize an adult cannabis program through the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act. The state currently has 110 licensed dispensaries, all of which must have a contract with a licensed private security agency.
Unsurprisingly, dispensaries are reluctant to discuss safety specifics.
CBD Kratom, one of two CBD dispensaries robbed this year (CBD is a compound derived from the hemp part of the cannabis plant, not containing the psychoactive ingredient THC), admitted to making a change. “We have made additional investments to improve the security of our stores, with the safety of our deans and customers in mind,” said Jill Firns, Director of CBD Kratom Bucktown.
Firns said a neighborhood watch group called Bucktown Watch also stepped in to help protect the store.
“The pandemic and the vacancy of many office buildings has contributed to the increase in crime and the number of agencies in Illinois,” adds Sutton. “Civil unrest was also a factor.”
According to the hundreds of job descriptions of armed clinic security guards posted on sites such as salary.com and glass door, a number of security staffing companies require dispensary security guards to have – or be willing to obtain – a number of certifications, including a permanent employee registration card, which is a certification criteria required in the State of Illinois to work as a security guard. The listings also ask for firearms training credentials, since most guards carry firearms.
Some customers have said that all the security can lead to an uncomfortable shopping experience and doesn’t necessarily make them safer. One in Chicago had a bad experience in a downtown. “I tried to open my bag after I made a purchase to see if it was the right brand. Right away two guys started barking for me to leave ASAP and couldn’t open the bag. bag inside,” said the customer, who asked not to be named.
Upstate client Jason Kay said he felt the negative impact of the rules and restrictions during a recent visit to a local clinic.
After a wait outside, security finally allowed him into the first room where staff were behind glass, checking ID and appointments, Kay said. Once they confirmed his, he had to wait for someone from the buying room to leave so he could be allowed in.
“Once inside, I could go to one of the cashiers who was looking for my order,” Kay said. “Unfortunately they lost my order, and when I took out my phone to show them my confirmation, they said I wasn’t allowed to have my phone in the room.”
Ultimately, he said, “Getting a pot brownie is treated as potential gang activity.”
Helaine Krysik is a Chicago-based freelance writer.