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WBEZ marijuana dispensary security illustration

Illinois law requires recreational marijuana sellers to employ private security, but several insiders say they are doubling down.

Illustration by EC Miller for WBEZ

Chicago’s legal weed biz is creating a boon for private security firms

A cash machine in the corner. An armed security guard near the door watching customers’ every move. As any legal weed buyer knows, these two features 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 – that’s why there’s so much cash. Given all that cash, and the expensive cannabis products, Illinois state law requires security be on hand.

“We’re dealing with weed and cash, and it’s high risk,” said a local officer recently while standing outside of a Near North dispensary. They did not want to be named, citing concerns about job security.



WBEZ marijuana dispensary security

A security guard sits at a station inside the entrance of the Cresco owned MedMar dispensary in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood in 2019.

Manuel Martinez

More than two years into recreational cannabis sales, some dispensary owners are investing more into private security. Data obtained from the Chicago Police Department show that the city’s 19 licensed dispensaries reported 13 combined burglaries, attempted burglaries and criminal damage reports since shops selling marijuana for recreational use opened in 2020 (medical-use cannabis sales have been legal in Illinois since 2015). Break-ins mostly occurred at businesses on the city’s North Side, and the breaches – combined with office vacancies in some retail zones near dispensaries and a rise in civil unrest during the pandemic – have led dispensaries to invest in more private security officers, said shop owners and an industry consultant.

Timothy Sutton, a senior security consultant at Guidepost Solutions who has worked with several dispensaries in Illinois, describes an “explosive rise” in security firms in the state. When dispensaries first opened, they were required to have security, but there was “no legal mandate as to how much security staff a dispensary needs to have in place,” Sutton said. Some businesses contracted one security officer, for example, and then trained staffers to work a security function. Others contracted all of their security.

But it’s not just the legal requirements that contributed to the rise in security firms. Dispensary robberies have become more frequent in dispensary-dense cities ranging from Tacoma to Oakland. Here in Chicago, police data show a combined six cannabis dispensaries and CBD stores have been robbed so far this year alone.

Illinois in 2020 became one of 11 states to legalize an adult-use cannabis program through the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act. The state currently has 110 licensed dispensaries, all of which must have a contract with a licensed, private security contractor agency.

Not surprisingly, dispensaries are reluctant to discuss security specifics.



WBEZ marijuana dispensary security

High-value products for sale at local marijuana dispensaries include vape pens, edibles, oils and cannabis flower.

Photos by Manuel Martinez/WBEZ. Collage by Cassie Walker Burke/Canva.

CBD Kratom, one of the 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), did acknowledge making a change. “We have made additional investments into upgrading the security of our stores, with the safety of both our doyens and customers in mind,” said Jill Firns, CBD Kratom Bucktown manager.

Firns said that a neighborhood watch group called Bucktown Watch also stepped in to help protect the store.

“The pandemic and many office buildings being vacant have been contributing factors to the increase in crime and the number of agencies in Illinois,” adds Sutton. “Civil unrest has also been a factor.”

According to the hundreds of dispensary armed security officer job descriptions posted on sites such as salary.com and glassdoor, a number of security staffing firms require that dispensary security officers possess – or be willing to obtain – a number of certifications, including a Permanent Employee Registration Card, which is required certification criteria in the State of Illinois to work as a security guard. Listings also ask for firearm training credentials, since most guards carry guns.



WBEZ line for dispensary opening

On the first day of recreational marijuana sales in Illinois in 2020, a line queued up at Mission Dispensary on Chicago’s South Side.

Manuel Martinez

Some customers said all the security can lead to an uncomfortable shopping experience and does not necessarily make them feel safer. One in Chicago had a poor experience at a downtown location. “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 at me to leave ASAP and that I can’t open the bag inside,” said the customer, who asked not to be named.

Jason Kay, a downstate customer, said he felt the negative impact of rules and restrictions during a recent visit to a local dispensary.

After a wait outside, security eventually allowed him into the first room where staff was behind glass, checking ID and appointments, Kay said. Once they confirmed his, he had to wait until someone from the purchase room left so that he could be allowed in.

“Once I was in, I could approach one of the cashiers who would look up my order,” Kay said. “Unfortunately they lost my order, and when I took my phone out to show them my confirmation, they told me I wasn’t allowed to have my phone in the room.”

In the end, he said, “Getting a pot brownie is treated as a potential gang activity.”

Helaine Krysik is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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