Like a gold rush, Alaska’s upcoming green rush will bring stacks of specie and currency, along with a version of the Pinkertons to guard the loot.
Federal banking laws prohibit federally or state-chartered banks and credit unions from accepting marijuana deposits or giving marijuana loans. The disparity between federal law and states that have legalized the product creates a unique security risk, as it consigns every cannabis grower, retailer and broker to a cash-only business model ripe for theft or robbery.
Alaska is catching on to a trend of cannabis business security that is rapidly growing in the Lower 48.
State representatives are familiar with upticks in burglaries and robberies targeted at cannabis businesses in states like Colorado, and have been hoping for legislation that would allow banks to accept deposits and allow transactions in states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal.
Those types of legislation include a bill from Rep. Don Young and an appropriations bill amendment favorably voted on by Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“You have a product that, not too long ago, was run underground and is still a market where there’s black marketing going on, and you know for a fact, or have to assume, that after the day’s sale, you’re going to have cash lying around,” said Murkowski during an Aug. 14 press conference in Anchorage. “You’re just setting yourself up for security issues, for a dangerous situation that is not right.”
Without reconciliation of banking laws at a federal level, local businesses will need security to handle cash. Alaska company Valkyrie Security and Asset Protection plans to make hay from cannabis businesses by providing armed transport, security video monitoring and vaulting service.s
“I am all about legitimate businesses earning a living by the law,” said Valkyrie founder and CEO Larry Clark. “We want to eliminate any criminal element from taking (the cannabis industry) over. In a sense, we feel like we’re actually providing a public safety service.”
Clark’s business is an Alaska first, but cannabis security firms are common in the Lower 48; marijuana trade magazines and websites list dozens nationwide and state specific sites for marijuana business security.
Security concerns over potential robberies are well founded in other states where the marijuana business has been legalized, leading to high-profile development in marijuana-specific armed security.
In Colorado, medical and recreational marijuana business crimes are common, including gunpoint robbery, assault and kidnapping. A 2014 NBC News report detailed that 317 burglaries and seven robberies were directed at medical marijuana businesses between 2011 and 2013.
Recreational marijuana was not legal in Colorado until 2014, and media reports indicate that marijuana robberies and burglaries in Colorado have been declining. Each state treats security differently. Washington has outlawed armed security at marijuana dispensaries.
In response to the initial wave of marijuana crimes, a former Afghanistan veteran created Blue Line Protection Group, Inc., a publicly traded Colorado armed security company specializing in marijuana business guardianship.
Valkyrie already operates surveillance and security, with clients like Mat-Su MyHouse, a Wasilla non-profit for homeless teens.
Clark, a former Texas police officer and Alaska Office of Public Advocacy investigator, started the company in February after the passage of the initiative that legalized recreational marijuana in Alaska last November.
Clark foresaw security needs not only from a basic safety perspective but also from the rigorous security and surveillance requirements to follow from regulations currently under review by the Alaska Marijuana Control Board.
The board is currently reviewing three sets of draft regulations for the legalized cannabis industry, to be recommended to the Alaska Legislature in November.
The board will issue the first business licenses in May 2016.
Some of the regulations require all cannabis industry activities to have extensive video surveillance and storage. The proposed amount of camera coverage and surveillance storage requires both expert installation and offsite video storage.
Clark’s trade, however, is armed security. Businesses can order pairs of armed guards uniformed in black pants, tan shirts, tactical vests and Glock 23s to transport cannabis cash in black SUVs between destinations or to a Valkyrie vault.
The guards complete concealed carry weapon certification, as well as advanced training from Alaska Tactical and Security Inc., without whose recommendation Clark does not hire the prospective guard.
“We’re very careful about who we put behind a weapons system,” Clark said.
“All my guys are either prior law enforcement or prior military. I want to know what your fight or flight response is going to be. I don’t want to find out in the heat of a battle that you’re going to run.”
Part of the uniforms Valkyrie guards wear, apart from a play for professional appearance, has to do with identification. Clark said that in the event of violence, good relationships, and good visuals, with police are important. Valkyrie’s policy is to notify police of the time and route of every armed transport. If the worst happens, police can identify the peace officers from robbers.
“We do have a good working relationship with police,” said Clark. “All the police departments know who we are, all the mayors know who we are.”
Valkyrie also will operate three underground storage vaults in Fairbanks, Anchorage and the Mat-Su area, complete with 24-hour surveillance and armed guards. Only depositors are allowed to know vault locations, to which an armed escort takes the money after scheduled pickups.
Because Valkyrie doesn’t loan against the money or use it for business purchases, the storage option meets federal financial regulations. Valkyrie takes a percentage of the stored amount as a fee.
Clark is careful about securing contracts with cannabis business prior to the May 2016 introduction of legal sales, but has tentative dealings with upcoming cannabis industries like Midnight Greenery and provided security at the Northwest Cannabis Classic industry trade show.
Having armed security isn’t regulated and necessary for Alaska cannabis businesses, but Clark said Alaska’s tendency towards self-sufficiency and fondness for guns won’t be enough to stave off some robbers.
“The mentality here is a little different than in Colorado,” said Clark. “Everyone here says ‘We don’t need security, we’ve got guns and we’ve got dogs.’ Well, so do the guys who want to rob you, and they’re going to be a little more prepared.”
DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.