Picture the kind of person who hauls the fruits of the marijuana trade from place to place. In times past, maybe it would have been a questionable character in an aging sedan, eyes peeled for any signs of undue attention from cops, grifters or mischievous teens. Nowadays, in yet another still-kinda-hard-to-believe byproduct of pot legalization, the task is increasingly falling to ex-law enforcement officers manning armored vehicles.
The irony can be pretty thick. Michael Jerome, a former 12-year deputy sheriff in Jefferson County, Colorado, concedes that he voted against the state's 2012 legalization initiative – but he was quick to recognize a prime business opportunity in the making. His firm, Blue Line Protection Group (which began with four employees in December 2013 and has since ballooned to 90) offers various "security services" to marijuana retailers and cultivators throughout the state. Their selling point is hard to argue with. "In this industry, there's an inherent distrust on the part of business owners toward authority figures," Jerome says. "We're primarily former military and law enforcement, so we already have this built-in connection to be a go-between."
Blue Line deploys armed guards to pot retailers, which has been seen as a necessary precaution given the large portion of transactions conducted in cash. (The unavailability of banking remains a sore subject for store owners in places like Colorado, even if restrictions have gradually eased.) But the presence of armed security often provides an intangible sense of assurance more than anything else: Sally Vander Veer of Denver's Medicine Man dispensary notes that the Blue Line armed guards stationed to her establishment mostly wind up inspecting IDs and warding off potential sting operations by authorities posing as would-be underage customers. "When the police do come to visit, there is definitely camaraderie with the guards," Vander Veer tells RS. "It really lends credibility to us."
Now that a respectable period of time has passed without any notable influx of crazed criminality in states like Colorado and Washington, some in the industry wonder whether over-reliance on armed security might in fact feed the unsubstantiated perception that marijuana-related business is a uniquely risky enterprise. (In Washington, armed security are barred from dispensaries, which Jerome, the firm's spokesperson, said has thwarted Blue Line's hopes of expanding in the state.)
Though he initially opted to contract armed guards at his retail facilities during business hours, Tim Cullen, CEO of Colorado Harvest Company, has since backed off. It's partly a question of aesthetics: Unless absolutely necessary, do you really want the first thing customers see upon entering a store to be a gun-wielding bruiser? Liquor stores certainly don't require such over-the-top measures. Cullen says he wonders if marijuana security firms are "playing on the fears of these terrible scenarios that aren't happening."
Ricky Bennett, a former police chief in Aurora who now oversees training for Blue Line, tells RS that notwithstanding a few scattered incidents, trouble has been minimal. "It just appears to me right now that things are fairly smooth," he says.
"When there is a homicide related to marijuana, it's taking place in the black market," says Michael Elliott, executive director of Colorado's Marijuana Industry Group. "But when you look at licensed marijuana businesses, these are very safe and secure facilities." How much of that security is attributable to the existence of firms like Blue Line is an open question.
According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, which regulates marijuana commerce in the state, third-party security firms don't fall within their regulatory purview. So for now, they've got relatively free rein. And for legalization advocates, of course, sussing out whether the legal marijuana trade has gotten too safe is a welcome conundrum.