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A look into the future of legal pot. (November 17, 2016)
Richard Lui/The Desert Sun

As municipal and state regulations have relaxed, cannabis-related businesses have appeared in droves in valley cities, prompting questions about security for the facilities themselves and about whether they’ll impact the safety of surrounding communities.

While city governments are drawn to the potential boost in tax revenue, concerns from citizens in some cities have forced their city councils to slow the process and study the effects cultivation and dispensary facilities have on local crime rates and economies.

In Cathedral City, the council was prompted to put a temporary moratorium on new dispensary applications after residents and business owners raised concerns that dispensaries were pricing local businesses out of the real estate market. Concerns were further exacerbated after a medical marijuana delivery person was robbed at gunpoint making a delivery in February.

However, criminology researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas found no correlation between medical marijuana legalization and an increase in crime. Reports from the Drug Policy Alliance, a lobbying group which advocates for federal decriminalization of drugs including marijuana, cited statistics provided by the Washington and Colorado court systems which show decreases in violent crime and property crime since recreational marijuana was legalized in those states.

Greta Carter, who has owned and operated dispensaries and cultivation facilities in Washington, Nevada and California, including Desert Hot Springs, said she believes as the industry expands, people will become less wary of the cannabis-related businesses.

“What we have observed as an industry is that communities are a bit anxious and nervous at first, so they have a tendency to overregulate and treat us like we’re plutonium,” Carter said.

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Medical marijuana plants are seen at a Coachella Valley dispensary. (Photo: The Desert Sun file photo)

READ MORE: A ‘massive undertaking’ as California races to regulate marijuana so legal sales can begin Jan. 1

She said cannabis cultivators had three main safety and security concerns: one, the security and safety of employees, two, the security and safety of the community and three, security and safety of the product. She acknowledged cannabis was a high value product, but said that didn’t necessarily mean cultivation facilities should be built up as fortresses surrounded by armed guards.

“When you walk into a mall or jewelry store and you see millions of dollars jewels under glass you don’t feel like you’re walking into a prison or Fort Knox, but you’d be crazy not to think that there’s security,” she said.

Carter said her biggest fear as a cultivator is that banking regulations have not yet caught up with the industry. Since marijuana is classified by the federal government as a schedule one drug, people in the cannabis industry cannot use banks without risking having their assets seized by the government, even in states where medical and recreational cannabis use has been legalized, forcing them to deal entirely in cash.

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Cannabis business owners talk about job creation during the Desert Hot Springs Small Business Summit. (October 26, 2016)
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“I’m really fearful that somebody will have to lose their life before the government re-examines this,” she said. “People get killed for a heck of a lot less than what we carry around on a daily basis.”

Tony Gallo, senior director at the Dallas, Texas-based Sapphire Risk Advisory Group, said the cannabis industry could be compared to other high risk industries, including firearms, tobacco and liquor businesses, in that they all deal with products that society doesn’t want “out on the street.”

Cultivation facilities and dispensaries are also similar to pawn shops and jewelry stores in that they have high-value products and lots of cash on hand. One of the differences, which can lead to security risks, is that cannabis is sexier than other products, Gallo said.

“When you’re sitting and having Easter dinner with your family and you say, ‘I’m in security for pawn shops,’ that might not get a response,” he said. “But when you mention that you’re in the legalized cannabis industry, you’re the center of attention.”

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Canndescent, a marijuana cultivation plant opens up in Desert Hot Springs. It’s the first in Southern California. (Sept. 29, 2016)
Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun

READ MORE: Desert Hot Springs looks beyond cannabis revenue

Inherently lucrative products also draw the attention of thieves, whose main objective is to sell stolen products as rapidly as possible. Marijuana is particularly lucrative, Gallo said, because it is easier to sell on the street than something like jewelry or a gun.

But not all security risks come from the outside, he added. At their core, cannabis-related businesses are retail businesses, and the majority of losses in the retail industry are internal.

According to the Global Retail Theft Barometer, a research group which publishes annual reports on losses and theft in the global retail industry, employee theft is the leading cause of loss for U.S. retail enterprises, costing up to $18 billion annually.

Gallo recently spoke to a group of cultivators in Desert Hot Springs, at a security seminar organized by Carter, and offered some tips on best security practices and where he sees the industry headed.

Marijuana plants are seen at a Coachella Valley dispensary. (Photo: Desert Sun file photo)

He and Carter both said new and advanced technology, if properly installed and applied, which Gallo said isn’t always the case, could revolutionize security for the cannabis industry.

Later this month, Sharp Electronics and Palm Springs-based transportation security company HardCar Security will offer a demonstration of a robotic security guard unit in Desert Hot Springs. This, along with other new technologies like biometric sensors and hidden metal detectors that don’t make people feel like they’re in an airport security line, could make cannabis businesses safer, Carter said, and a little less intimidating to the communities they’re located in.

Corinne Kennedy covers the west valley for The Desert Sun. She can be reached at Corinne.Kennedy@DesertSun.com, on Twitter @CorinneSKennedy or at 760-778-47625.

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