For Maine’s marijuana industry, security’s still high-risk

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“I don’t live in fear; it’s just not my style,” says grower Chad Crandall, whose operation in Jay is outfitted with surveillance cameras and motion sensors. But he admits: “The cameras, the security system, it gives me peace of mind.” (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)

Using crowbars and jackhammers, thieves broke into Dawson and Kelly Julia’s medical cannabis grow in Unity two years ago, forcing their way past a locked steel door and boarded-up window to steal 60 marijuana plants valued at more than $50,000 from this husband-and-wife caregiver business.

In under an hour, East Coast CBD’s entire marijuana crop was gone.

“Up here in Maine, I felt pretty safe, especially considering my mission,” Dawson Julia said. “I mean, I grow a plant that helps sick people, right? But I learned the hard way. Yeah, it’s still Maine, it is safe and it is a great community, but we’re all cash, we grow a valuable plant that can be sold on the black market and to top it off, the law says I can’t even use a firearm to defend myself.”

Since the Valentine’s Day 2016 robbery, the Julias have spent $20,000 to install layers of roll-down steel doors, a camera system and motion-triggered internal and external security systems. Most importantly, they now have two workers living in the building that doubles as both a grow facility and retail shop, providing round-the-clock in-person surveillance.

The crime risk varies from grow to grow, from crimes of opportunity, like stealing outdoor plants, to deadly home invasions. Advocates claim the industry is safer than alcohol or tobacco, but no Maine agency is keeping track of crimes against the cannabis industry, and many who are victimized don’t go to the police, believing they won’t investigate or fearing it might taint the industry’s public image.

“We’ve got our hands full trying to figure out the public safety part of a law that most of us didn’t want, like how to keep people who are high off our roads, so we haven’t really gotten into the security part yet,” said Robert Schwartz, retired South Portland police chief and head of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. “We’re in a funny spot, but we don’t want anyone getting robbed or hurt.”

Maine lawmakers and police, many of whom opposed legalization, are leaving it up to the marijuana industry to figure out how to keep itself safe, at least for now. The state will write the rules governing its recreational marijuana market over the next year. That’s when it will tackle how cannabis cultivation and retail facilities must be secured.

Until then, security in Maine’s marijuana industry remains largely unregulated.

As a result, security measures vary wildly across the industry, from caregivers who rely on discretion and karma to ward off criminals, to those who let it be known they will use force to protect their grows in spite of a federal firearm prohibition on marijuana users, to the high-volume dispensaries using retired drug enforcement agents and armored trucks to move their cash.

“The marijuana industry is a very soft target,” said retired Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officer Scott Durst, a security consultant who works for Maine dispensaries.

There is a lot of money at play. The medical market is valued at about $50 million, split among eight dispensaries and about 3,000 caregivers. By 2022, after the adult-use system has had two or three years to mature, the Maine market is expected to hit $265 million, according to the 2018 market report from Arcview Market Research & BDS Analytics.

In Maine, still-developing state laws focus more on public safety than industry safety, and on security measures for larger dispensaries, which must have exterior lighting, an alarm system, panic buttons, locks and a video surveillance system, rather than caregivers, which are only required to discourage theft by keeping cannabis in an enclosed, locked space out of public view.

But a new state law that allows caregivers to serve more than five patients at a time out of storefronts rather than their homes may lead to larger caregiver businesses that resemble mini-dispensaries, making it more likely that whatever security rules are written to apply to the coming wave of adult-use grows, labs and stores will eventually be applied to medical businesses, too.

If Maine follows Colorado’s lead, it will leave its upcoming security rules vague and their implementation up to the individual businesses, said Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s former marijuana czar. Colorado learned its lesson after rolling out overly detailed security rules for its medical marijuana market in 2010, which it later repealed for both medical and its first-in-the-nation adult-use market.

Local marijuana advocates like David Boyer, head of Maine’s Marijuana Policy Project chapter, and Paul McCarrier, a new shopkeeper himself and president of Legalize Maine, like the idea of leaving industry security up to the industry rather than the rulemakers, making it less likely a costly security requirement would shut Maine’s small growers out.

A handful of entrepreneurs like Durst, Seacoast Security of Rockport and HSL Security of Naples are jumping in to position themselves ahead of the state and local permitting of adult-use businesses, hoping regulators will favor applicants who are fully insured and have a sophisticated security plan designed by professionals.

HSL’s Josh Haller is going so far as to develop a plan for a storage facility for marijuana deposits, protected round-the-clock by guards.

‘NO BACKSTOP’ FOR SECURITY

Growers like Chad Crandall and Emily Isler, a husband-and-wife caregiver team out of Jay, say they invested in a farm security system to secure insurance designed to cover the marijuana side of their farm operation in 2011, back when there weren’t that many insurance companies willing to cover cannabis grows. California-based Next Wave Insurance insisted on a full security plan.

At first, Crandall and Isler didn’t like the idea of having cameras all over their farm, but they have come to appreciate the other benefits, like increased work productivity – he can be out working in the field right up until a patient pulls into his driveway – and monitoring crops, fuel deliveries and the well-being of his farm animals, all right from his phone.

“You see all kinds of interesting things on the cameras,” Crandall said. “They caught the fox that was eating my chickens.”

Over time, as his business has grown to include marijuana processing as well as cultivation, the security system has evolved to include extensive camera surveillance, motion sensors on all the doors and windows and driveway alarms monitored by Crandall as well as his security company, Seacoast Security. His best alarms, however, remain his Australian cattle dogs.

Extra cash is not a problem, he said with a laugh – all the money goes back into the farm, which he is constantly improving.

“When we made the decision to do this, to do cannabis as a business, we quickly realized we were playing in a field with no backstop,” Crandall said. “I don’t live in fear; it’s just not my style, and we do live in Maine. There’s really not a lot of bad that happens here, but the cameras, the security system, it gives me peace of mind.”

Crandall will hire private security during harvest time when he completes the construction and licensing of an extraction lab in a nearby town. The extra expense is necessary because clients will be entrusting him with their entire crops of cannabis or hemp for processing into concentrates used in salves, tinctures, oils and edibles, he said.

“I don’t think caregivers should have to go crazy with security because it’s expensive, and it can be the last straw for some trying to get into the business, but the laws do need to be outlined, especially for bigger operations, and part of regulation weeds out those who can and those who can’t,” Crandall said. “I think insurance will handle a lot of this.”

INVITING CRIME?

Many of Maine’s outdoor growers have had to endure so-called “rippers” who literally yank mature plants from the fields just before the harvest – there is even a Facebook page devoted to catching Maine rippers – while dispensaries like the Wellness Connection deal with dumpster divers hunting for pot discards. (There are none, as state law requires destruction of all byproducts).

None of the high-volume medical marijuana growers or retailers in Portland, including Wellness, have reported any high-dollar thefts or violent assaults, according to Interim Police Chief Vernon Malloch. The city is just starting to consider how to regulate adult-use and is waiting to see the state rules before it considers local additions, including ones that deal with security, he said.

Most of the time, criminals hit when no one is around, like last September, when a convicted burglar broke into the home of a Cornville caregiver and made off with several pounds of marijuana and a boat motor. But sometimes, they hit when the caregiver is there, like in April, when three men fired shots at a Greene grower who caught them trying to break into his house.

Last year, a New Hampshire man was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for holding a Lyman caregiver and family at gunpoint and sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl during a 2016 home invasion. Xavier Watson, who is now 25, drove up from New Hampshire with three friends to ransack the caregiver’s house in search of cash and cannabis, according to court records.

This high-profile crime sparked a wave of copycat robberies, although rarely as violent, which prompted many caregivers to stop selling to patients in their home and move their grows off-site to warehouses, rented fields or medical retail shops, and drove some to invest in home security systems, with panic buttons that connect directly to private security companies.

Without traditional access to banks, however, Maine caregivers are still faced with the problem of what to do with their profits. Most pay for everything with cash, from farm supplies to rent to family food. Those with any left over stash it in personal bank accounts, invest in non-marijuana businesses and, when necessary, a home safe, caregivers say.

That’s what police say Tony Locklear was after when he and two friends walked into the Millinocket home of a former employer, Wayne Lapierre, and tied up, handcuffed and shot Lapierre and his wife last December. Lapierre died three days later, the first known homicide inside Maine’s licensed marijuana industry. The three are awaiting a January 2019 trial on murder charges.

The Attorney General’s Office said drug-related homicides have grown more frequent in Maine in recent years, but usually involve heroin or cocaine instead of marijuana. It doesn’t track marijuana-related robberies or assaults, a spokesman said. Maine State Police did not respond to questions about marijuana crime other than to say it would participate in rulemaking when the time comes.

DANGERS OF CASH

It was the fear of harm coming to his family that made the question of whether to invest in a top-notch security system a “no-brainer” for Pete Tranchemontagne, a Sanford medical marijuana patient and grower. His whole family grows, both to help him endure the pain of a chronic neck injury and pancreatitis and to help grow the family businesses, Uncle Pete’s Re-Leaf and Tranch Ranch.

“I’m not taking any chances,” he said. “They help me stay out of the hospital. The least I can do is keep them safe.”

With the four caregivers in the family growing and meeting patients at the farm, Tranchemontagne decided to use $7,000 of his startup money from a legal settlement to install a security system, including panic buttons, wired doors and windows, a buzzer system to admit patients and surveillance cameras with 30 days of archival storage. He pays a $500 annual fee to the security company.

Being an “old-school” caregiver helps, Tranchemontagne said. None of the family members used short-term patient designations to work around state patient caps, he said. That means you get to know your patients really well, which limits his exposure to potential criminals. The smaller clientele means he isn’t rolling in cash, but what little cash he is paid is promptly used to pay his workers and bills.

While Tranchemontagne does have a credit union account, the high fees it charges marijuana companies for every deposit – 10 percent of each transaction, he said – means they often drive their cash to a nearby check cashing center and turn it into money orders they will use to pay off their larger bills, including their state and federal taxes.

“I tell the politicians, if you want to keep the criminal element out of the industry, give us the banking system,” Tranchemontagne said. “I do what I can to make sure we don’t have money lying around the house, but I don’t want my wife, who’s just 100 pounds, driving down to the check-cashing place every day with a thousand dollars on her, either. … That’s inviting trouble.”

POLICE PRESENCE

Some caregivers claim the police would rather hassle marijuana growers than help them, even when they are victimized. For example, Julia had a hard time getting police to investigate his robbery, much less dust for fingerprints, but they showed up in number when the state Department of Health and Human Services inspected him after he began increasing the number of patients.

The department found no violations, despite going as far as looking under ceiling tiles, and the local sheriff apologized when Julia told him that his deputies had accompanied state enforcement agents on an inspection that felt a lot more like a raid than a regulatory and compliance check, with police cars surrounding the property for all the neighbors to see.

“There was a lot of firepower that day,” Julia said. “Would have been nice to have had that kind of response when I got robbed.”

Some caregivers believe the police just need time to get used to the idea that marijuana is legal and those who work in the field are no different than a bartender or pharmacist who sells a legal product that consumers can sometimes abuse, and cited instances where the police have tracked down cannabis thieves or robbers.

In 2012, long before Maine or even Colorado legalized adult-use marijuana, Ellsworth police returned $12,800 worth of marijuana to a local state-certified caregiver who had reported it stolen from his greenhouse. The police caught the thief, who was charged with theft, robbery and possession of marijuana, during a traffic stop when the car he was in ran a stop sign.

The department wrestled with whether to return the plants to the caregiver, Thomas Davis, or destroy them like it would any other substance classified as a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, but decided to return them to Davis because he was legally allowed to grow them under the existing state laws. Unfortunately, Davis couldn’t sell the returned plants, which had been tainted by mold during the heist.

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