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Alarming Trends in Cannabis Crime—There’s a Standard for That

Cannabis is big business. In 2019, New Frontier Data projected that by 2025, the market value of the U.S. cannabis industry will reach annual sales of $30 billion. On 15 February 2024, The Missouri Times reported that dispensaries have sold more than $1.4 billion of legal, taxed, and tested marijuana in Missouri since the U.S. state started adult-use cannabis sales on 3 February 2023.  

Today, 24 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale of adult-use cannabis. If the trend continues that a state legalizes adult-use cannabis after establishing a legalized medical cannabis market for a couple of years, 16 more states with a medical cannabis market are expected to legalize recreational adult-use in the near future. New Frontier Data’s projection of $30 billion might be low.

But this lucrative market has some significant roadblocks to sustainable growth, from regulatory hurdles to crime trends.

In 2022, the Biden Administration asked the secretary of Health and Human Services and the attorney general to review cannabis classification as a Schedule I drug.  Speculation that cannabis would be rescheduled to Schedule III or, better yet, be de-scheduled and removed from the DEA’s drug schedule entirely were forefront in the industry newsletters and publications but to no avail.  Other measures that were introduced in previous years, such as the States Reform Act (SRA), the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act and the Marijuana Opportunity and Reinvestment (MORE) Act, surprisingly were not reintroduced in 2023. As it stands today, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act and illegal under U.S. federal law. 

Banks are hesitant to work with cannabis businesses for fear they may be charged with money laundering related to illegal drug trade or lose their Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) standing.  Because of this, cannabis operators, especially dispensaries, are forced to conduct business in cash. 

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services, there are 203 dispensaries in Missouri licensed to sell adult-use cannabis. Using the $1.4 billion annual sales figure for the state of Missouri, this would equate to an average of nearly $19,000 in daily sales spread across all 203 dispensaries. This, coupled with the numerous news stories sharing that dispensaries are mainly cash-only, makes dispensaries a target for crime. The slide in the economy and effects of inflation have left many people desperate and looking for ways to make ends meet—contributing to the increase of break-ins at dispensaries.

The vast majority of break-ins at dispensaries are classified as smash and grabs or crash and grabs. Hardly a day goes by that a dispensary hasn’t been broken into or robbed. Why? Because whether or not there is a cache of cash inside every dispensary, the media has led people to believe there is. Stories abound of robberies and burglaries of dispensaries yielding huge amounts of cash, so the frequency of these incidents is not surprising. To further add to the allure, the booty often includes award-winning cannabis and cannabis products.

Other trending thefts can overlap with cannabis crime. In 2021, thefts of Kias and Hyundais in the United States jumped from a few a month to more than 800 during August 2021. This trend was the result a TikTok challenge from the Kia Boys, exploiting a security flaw in some older model Kias and Hyundais. Crash and grab burglaries are committed by crashing a vehicle into a dispensary to gain entry, grabbing whatever can be taken, and fleeing.  Many times, the vehicle used in the crash is left at the dispensary, and the perpetrators flee in another vehicle. The vehicles are often stolen, and after the Kia Boys videos surfaced, those vehicles are frequently Kias or Hyundais.

Using vehicles to gain entry to a building is not new and has occurred in almost every state where cannabis is legal for sale. California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Washington see crash and grabs at dispensaries frequently, according to a report from cannabis industry blog The Bluntness.

During the summer of 2022, several dispensaries in Missouri experienced break-ins. At a dispensary in Festus, Missouri, thousands of dollars of damage were incurred to the building during a crash and grab incident. The thieves, however, left empty-handed; they never made it past the lobby and were not able to take anything. Just hours before the incident, the dispensary owner proactively reenforced all its doors and boosted security as a direct response to area break-ins.

“When you have drugs and money in a location, or they think there are drugs and money, they’re going to keep doing this,” said Festus Police Chief Tim Lewis.  “What I want to stress is the owners in Festus were shrewd enough to meet what the minimum standards set by the state of Missouri, and then they stepped up their game.”

Lewis’s statement shines a light on the biggest problem with security in the cannabis industry. Most cannabis organizations tend to find security a hassle, over regulated, not needed, or another rule to comply with. I have personally worked with clients with operations in nearly every state in the United States where cannabis is legal and have seen the minimum levels of security, required by law, implemented. 

Although the added security was not specified in news reports, the Festus dispensary owner credited the extra fortifications for preventing product or cash loss. Missouri regulations require all cannabis product and cash be secured in a secured storage room (a vault) during hours of non-operation. This is why there was no product or cash loss. Missouri also requires a video camera and a manual silent alarm inside the vault. The vault must be secured in a manner that prevents access to unauthorized individuals through both physical and electronic security measures.  Whatever the dispensary owner implemented over and above the requirements certainly didn’t include the installation of rated bollards or some other type of barrier to mitigate against vehicle crash and grabs through the all-glass storefront. Perhaps the fortifications added were to the secure storage room such as a roll-down steel shutter or multipoint locking door.

Compliance regulations change so much between U.S. states that it is difficult to obtain a baseline on what security measures an organization should install. Therefore, industrywide guidance is invaluable.

Recently, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved a new Cannabis Security Standard. This standard was developed by a technical committee from members of ASIS International composed of 25 security practitioners, half of whom are board-certified by ASIS International as security professionals holding either the CPP, PCI, PSP, or some combination of the three. Some work within the cannabis industry as security managers and directors within cannabis organizations, others work with the cannabis industry as consultants or security service and products providers, and one is a compliance enforcement and training officer within a cannabis regulating body in Illinois.

This standard does what no other standard attempts because it addresses the creation and maintenance of the security program within cannabis organizations from an enterprise security risk management (ESRM) stance.  The administrative rules for cannabis across the United States and other regions where cannabis is legal vary wildly and fail to address the security program as security management, security operations, and security technology, instead tending to concentrate on technology.

The new ANSI/ASIS standard addresses the security program in its entirety, providing mitigation strategies to protect cannabis organizations and their assets from a security practitioner’s vantage point.  The standard includes more than 30 pages of guidance on physical protection systems as a normative annex that not only contains requirements and options for consideration but offers an educational aspect providing guidance on the design and implementation of protective measures for an organization’s assets as part of the cannabis security program.

The standard includes a section explaining how certain barriers can be used for hostile vehicle mitigation and offers options for cannabis operators to protect their store frontages from vehicular threats that, if implemented, would have a tremendous mitigating effect on the number of crash and grabs within the cannabis industry. The standard lists options within crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) measures including the concept of concentric rings as layers of protection and the five layers of protection in security design. There also is a section on site hardening and implementation of site hardening systems including structural integrity and resilience of the premises against attacks as well as a section on physical barriers.

This new standard will most certainly impact the safety and security of cannabis organizations establishing security beyond compliance with licensing agencies, elevating their security programs to the levels seen in every other type of high-risk businesses. 

The Cannabis Security Standard is available as a softcover book and an eBook. ASIS International members can access the eBook version for free.


Timothy Sutton, CPP, PCI, PSP, is a senior security consultant with Guidepost Solutions. He has more than 30 years of experience including operational security management and program development, loss prevention, physical security and risk assessments, and technical security systems design and implementation. He has worked with clients in diverse sectors including medicinal and adult-use cannabis, healthcare, retail, government, manufacturing, and multi-use properties.


Correction: This article has been updated to include a link to The Bluntness blog regarding vehicle theft and its relation to cannabis burglaries.