Rash of marijuana store robberies highlights need for safeguards

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Image of a security camera in a retail store

A spike in sometimes violent robberies at marijuana retail outlets across the United States is putting the industry on edge and causing business owners to revamp security to safeguard their stores and employees.

Security experts contacted by MJBizDaily recommended a variety of steps, ranging from good lighting and video systems to time-locked safes and payment apps.

Employees, meanwhile, are advised to stay calm and even help robbers – open doors, for example, and avoid any interference – to get them out of the building ASAP.

Such recommendations – which often aren’t cheap – come amid a recent flurry of robberies targeting dispensaries in Washington state and the San Francisco Bay Area, among other places.

Employees have been pistol-whipped and safes emptied at gunpoint – or worse.

In Tacoma, Washington, a marijuana store employee was shot and killed in March during a robbery, underscoring the risks for those working in what is often a cash-based business.

Denver regulators – in response to a growing number of “smash-and-grab” attempts – now require medical and recreational stores to have at least one safe for marijuana products and cash that is secured to the building.

If there’s not enough space to do that, retail operators must take other steps, such as hiring security guards to patrol the facility during nonbusiness hours.

Physical premises

Good lighting – both exterior and interior – is key to discouraging would-be robbers.

“Bad guys aren’t excited about lighting – bad things happen in the dark,” said Mark Stinde, senior vice president of operations for The Integritus Group, a Boston-based firm that provides loss prevention consulting services to the cannabis industry.

If a shop has windows, which is preferred, they shouldn’t be blocked with signage, plants or foliage that obstruct the view to the outside so that law enforcement officials can see if there’s an event occurring.

“Too many times you pull up to a facility and they’ve got all this big, sale-of-the-month things covering the windows and you can’t see in the store,” said Tim Sutton, senior consultant with Chicago-based security firm Guidepost Solutions.

“No one casually driving by can see if there’s a robbery taking place.”

Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a medical marijuana advocacy group based in Washington DC, advises businesses to “develop and enforce policies for checking all doors and windows before opening and after closing.”

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In its recently released “Robbery Preparedness Guide,” the ASA also recommends that employees “check all hatches and vents after closing to make sure no one can enter the building.”

At the same time, it’s crucial to have a video system with good storage capabilities and, if possible, one that provides license-plate recognition, according to experts.

In addition, remote monitoring features are a good idea because they can trigger an alarm and alert a third party of a robbery in progress, which then can be reported to law enforcement.

“If the building doesn’t have windows, you want to create something similar,” Stinde said. “You should have a video camera outside the door so employees can see cars approach the facility.”

Retailers also should establish a secure vestibule entry to the shop that’s controlled by an electronic system that prevents the door into the sales room from unlocking or opening until a customer is vetted.

“Any time the perimeter door is open, you should not have access to the next door, and some shops even have separate exits,” said security consultant Clint Wynne of Coventry, Rhode Island-based Wynne & Associates.

Cash and vaults

Even if marijuana companies have a bank, there’s still the perception they are all-cash businesses and, therefore, easy targets for robbers.

Practices to discourage robberies include limiting the amount of cash in drawers to $150 or less – in much the same way convenience stores do – and posting signs stating that employees don’t have access to cash.

“If someone only gets $50, then they might not come back to that place again,” said Stinde, who previously worked as vice president for asset protection at 7-Eleven.

Most point-of-sale systems can be set up to alert cashiers that they are approaching that amount of cash in the till and notify them that it’s time to remove the cash from the drawer and deposit it in a drop safe or vault.

Payment apps – such as those from Arizona-headquartered Hypur and Colorado-based CanPay – or reloadable gift or member cards can help keep the amount of cash on-site to a minimum.

Retailers also should use time-locked safes that won’t open for 20 minutes after the combination is entered, the thought being that the robbers won’t wait that long, according to experts.

Armed security and weapons

Hiring armed security guards is an option, but at up to $80,000 per year per guard, it can be cost prohibitive.

Guards or armed employees also might create a situation that results in someone getting hurt.

“We told our 7-Eleven franchisees that if you’re carrying a gun, you’re only going to pull it when the other guy has his pulled,” Stinde said.

“Most people are not going to the range every week. They’re not trained on shoot-don’t-shoot situations, and you have customers in the building. So it creates risk.

“The minute you engage a knife, a gun, a baseball bat, it exponentially increases the risk to the shop owner and the other people in the building.”

While it’s generally a bad idea to have armed guards or employees inside a store, having one outside with a weapon that’s visible might thwart robbery attempts, Wynne said.

“I’m not a proponent of armed security guards inside – that leads to potential problems,” Wynne said. “But one armed outside so anyone scoping the place out can see it is OK.”

Employee training

Employees are a retailer’s front-line defense against robberies, so it’s important they have a grasp on protocols that can both keep them safe and discourage robbers.

Make sure employees are trained to engage with every customer who comes in by offering a pleasant greeting and making eye contact.

“It shows them that you recognize them – not all robbers put the mask on outside,” Stinde said. “They’ll have already scoped the place out. Making good eye contact tells the would-be robber, ‘This person knows what I look like.’”

If a robbery does occur, it’s important employees stay calm and do what the robber demands.

At the same time, notice whether they have tattoos or scars, what their hair color is, their height and weight and what type of gun they’re carrying.

If someone gets hurt, it’s likely because they don’t remain calm or they make the robber feel uncomfortable or threatened, Stinde said.

“The robber then becomes aggressive and, at a minimum, hurts them,” he said. “But for the most part, someone is there to rob you, not hurt you.”

The ASA guide agrees with the need to say calm and avoid panic.

That can even mean opening doors for a criminal to ensure a speedy exit. And avoid trying to overpower the robber or physically interfere with that person.

“Cooperate with the robber with the goal of getting them out of the facility as quickly as possible,” the ASA guide noted.