November 18, 2019

NM leaves med. cannabis security specifics up to producers

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On a Sunday afternoon over Labor Day weekend, a masked man, armed with a gun, burst through the doors of an Albuquerque medical cannabis dispensary. About two minutes later, he walked back out the door, with an estimated $5,000 worth of cannabis products. In that time, the man hopped over a glass display case and corralled employees and at least one patient into one spot while he emptied a large jar of cannabis—and seconds later cannabis concentrates from the display case—into a bag. After he left, the man got into a car waiting in the back and sped off. All of it was caught on security cameras.  

In body camera footage from the Albuquerque Police Department, one of the employees can be heard recounting what the man said. 

“He asked if we had families and he was like, ‘Then you understand why I have to do this,’” the employee said.

Many cannabis producers, along with at least one representative from the Medical Cannabis Program (MCP), agree that the robbery at Everest Apothecary in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights was a rare occurrence. Records from the New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) show cannabis producers reported nine other break-ins or attempted robberies since January. The Labor Day armed robbery was the first of its kind this year. But the incident also highlights the relaxed security standards for New Mexico medical cannabis producers. Compared to other states with medical or recreational cannabis programs, New Mexico dispensaries have much more autonomy when it comes to securing their facility. Some surrounding states require dispensaries use video monitoring, with specific camera placement. The only hard-line requirement for New Mexico dispensaries’ alarms and security plans is that they have both. 

Security plan: have one

APD officer Wesley Jackson was on the scene at Everest Apothecary about 10 minutes after the robbery happened. Within 30 minutes, Jackson was reviewing the store’s security footage with a crime scene specialist. 

“Gosh, he took everything,” Jackson remarked.

With no security door separating patients from cannabis, the man was able to get in and out in minutes. The only thing that may have slowed him down was the fact that he was unable to go straight to the car waiting for him in the back. In footage from a police body camera, an Everest employee told officers the man wanted to get out the back door, but the employee didn’t have a key. 

Security footage from a Sept. 2019 robbery at Everest Apothecary

At the time, Everest was one of a handful of dispensaries in New Mexico with very little to no barriers between someone who walks in the door and the medical cannabis. Dispensaries outfitted with glass covered check-in windows are not immune to armed robbery, but a similar attempt caught on camera about a week after the Everest robbery shows how most security measures are deterrents more than anything else. In security footage shared with NM Political Report by New Mexico cannabis producer Ultra Health, two men can be seen walking in to an Ultra Health dispensary waiting area. One man immediately tried to kick open a security door, but after a few failed attempts, the two men fled. 

State Medical Cannabis Program Co-Director Dominick Zurlo told NM Political Report that while the program recommends heightened security for dispensaries and grow operations, there is no specific requirements on how to do so. Zurlo said dispensaries in New Mexico each have unique needs and a standardized security plan may not work for everyone. Another concern, Zurlo said, is overregulation.  

“We really leave that aspect up to them,” he said. 

Zurlo also compared dispensaries to pharmacies in terms of security. 

“Many of the medications they have are going to be worth an awful lot more than cannabis,” Zurlo said. “If places like that are not required to have these sort of [security] items, how are we able legally to require it?”

Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of Ultra Health, has long encouraged the state to take a less regulatory role with medical cannabis, but specifically regarding the number of plants producers can grow. He said safety and security are things the state should take a more active role in.    

“It’s a bit of a surprise that this area is not getting the attention it probably deserves,” Rodriguez said. “Security for our employees and for our patients, should be the highest priority and you would hope the department would put a higher priority on that, than constantly debating how many plants should be out there.”

In Arizona, New Mexico’s neighbor with a comparable medical cannabis program, the state requires dispensaries to have “Security equipment to deter and prevent unauthorized entrance into limited access areas” and a surveillance system with “At least one 19-inch or greater call-up monitor.” Colorado’s rules dictate specific camera placement and California requires dispensaries use cameras with a specific resolution. 

Security requirements to sell, grow or manufacture cannabis in New Mexico

Darren White, the head of medical cannabis company PurLife, is a former law enforcement officer and state public safety secretary. He said even facilities with the toughest security measures are not immune to armed robbery, but they are less appealing to would-be criminals. 

“We always know that in these crimes it’s opportunity. If you go to somebody’s house and you’re a burglar and you’re snooping around a house and there are a bunch of big dogs in the house, you’ll go to the next house,” White said.  

White added that given the nature of the business, he and other producers are always trying to balance safety and patient comfort. 

“You’re trying to create an environment for patients that is comfortable and relaxing. You don’t want to make it feel like they’re walking into a heavily guarded bank,” White said. “But, at the same time, we recognize we have two things that are very, very attractive to some of the bad guys: cash and drugs.”

PurLife locations require patients to check-in before they are buzzed in through a security door to where cannabis is sold.

But White’s company is not immune to theft either as illustrated by the reports PurLife sent to the DOH regarding two different incidences this year. In July, someone unsuccessfully tried to break into a PurLife dispensary. A month later, someone successfully broke in and stole cannabis edibles and extracts from a locked display case. In a letter to DOH, White’s son Darren White II, who goes by Indy, said an employee mistakenly left the products in a display case instead of a safe overnight. Indy said he informed the employee that products are not to be left in the display case overnight—something that is not required by DOH. 

Letters like Indy’s to the DOH are required though. The department requires all security breaches to be reported, along with an explanation of what was done to repair damage or remediate the risk. But producers should not expect that information to be disseminated by the DOH or MCP.  

Sharing stories

Reports of break-ins and theft from New Mexico cannabis producers to the DOH run the gamut of likely scenarios. In one instance in March, cannabis producer R. Greenleaf reported that someone tried to drive a car through a dispensary storefront, but nothing was stolen. Two months later, another producer—MedZen—reported an attempted theft at a grow operation in the middle of the night. An employee reportedly was able to disrupt the theft attempt, but the thieves ultimately got away with two cannabis plants.   

Both R. Greenleaf and MedZen are overseen by the cannabis management and consulting company Reynold Greenleaf and Associates. Willie Ford, Reynold Greenleaf’s managing director, told NM Political Report he would like the DOH and MCP to start notifying the network of New Mexico producers, growers and manufacturers of security issues. 

“My biggest concern is the safety of the patients and my contention is that sharing information regarding break-ins, robberies and burglaries will make the program safer, the producers safer and most importantly the patients safer,” Ford said. 

He’s made his point clear to the DOH and MCP too. In an email to the MCP, Ford laid out his concerns after he heard about the Everest robbery. 

“With regards to the recent armed robbery of Everest Apothecary, we are very disappointed that the DOH/MCP has decided to not share information regarding criminal activity in our industry,” Ford wrote. “This information could be instrumental in helping us protect our employees and patients, and it seems irresponsible for the MCP not to provide as much information as possible.”

Zurlo told NM Political Report the reason the DOH and MCP don’t share that information is because it oversteps businesses’ rights to decide whether or not to share that information. He said producers already have a communication network among themselves and can and do share information. 

“If there were something like a pattern going on, we most certainly would be talking with producers and dispensary operators to really say, “Hey, these are some of the things that we’re seeing, we are seeing a pattern of this occurring,’” Zurlo said. “But when you have the occasional situation, which is really what these are, that’s the kind of thing that would be up to those individuals to do this.”

Zurlo again compared pharmacies to dispensaries. 

“If for example, a pharmacy had a burglary, do they turn around and notify every other pharmacy?” he asked.

Ford said he’s resigned to the fact that the department won’t likely start alerting producers of robberies. 

“Do I expect them to change? No. They seem to have consulted their legal department and they have a policy in place and that’s fine,” Ford said. “I don’t think it’s the best it could be but I think they have issues that they have to take under consideration that I don’t really have to.” 

Zurlo said it’s not the place of the DOH or MCP to tell cannabis businesses how to operate or force them to release internal information.

“What if a particular organization doesn’t necessarily want to do that?” Zurlo asked. “What if they found out that it was an internal individual?” 

In one case in April, a dispensary reported to the DOH and MCP that they suspected a former employee sawed through an internal wall and stole two plants. 

Historically, most reported dispensary thefts happen overnight while the facilities are closed. In March, the Santa Fe Reporter reported a nine-day rash of break-ins in Santa Fe. 

But the Everest robbery was not the first of its kind. Last year, the Albuquerque Journal reported that at least one dispensary was robbed at gunpoint. 

Zurlo said the bottom line is that dispensaries are businesses and the DOH and MCP do not intend to dictate how businesses are run.  

“Part of what this comes down to is medical cannabis and the operations are really like any other organization or business,” Zurlo said. 

In Everest Apothecary’s case, a spokesperson for the company told NM Political Report they have since installed shatterproof glass and a security door to separate patients from the cannabis until a patient card and identification card are checked—now done through a secured window. 

“Crime is not an issue specific to the cannabis industry. Crime is rampant city wide across all industries and across all sectors of the city,” Everest Apothecary Director of Operations Trishelle Kirk said. “That said, at Everest Apothecary the safety of our employees and customers is of utmost importance. Even though the Department of Health has not mandated additional security measures we have added new precautionary measures.”