Selling marijuana on the legal market is something less than the world’s safest job. A mix of popular drugs, abundant cash, and legal uncertainty leave many pot shops at risk of burglary, robbery, and even murder.

Store owners have a few options: elaborate security measures, bulletproof glass, and armed guards, among others. Normally guards would be uniformed off-duty police officers, as is the case at concert arenas, bodegas, and box stores across America. But the sketchy federal status of cannabis has made that arrangement impossible in most places.

Instead, a growing number of businesses are turning to a new pool of potential guards to keep their marijuana dispensaries safe: military vets. Chris Bowyer, 30, saw combat as a Marine in Iraq and now patrols the Herbal Cure dispensary with a .40-caliber handgun and extra ammunition, he told The New York Times.

Dispensaries are at ongoing risk of theft

The threat of violence is real. Burglaries are a regular occurrence at Herbal Cure, a grow site and pot shop in Denver, forcing Bowyer to keep a meticulous journal and make daily checks for break-ins.

“This is my therapy,” he told The Times. “This is what we did in the military.”

Men and women like Bowyer offer a solution to a stubborn problem for the legal marijuana industry. Voters have legalized the drug for any adult use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia, yet it remains prohibited under federal law.

Federal statutes also bar banks from working with marijuana businesses, leaving dispensaries with nowhere to stash their profits, no way to buy on credit, and no formal recourse if their product is stolen.

Marijuana Dispensary Pot Shop

State and federal efforts to resolve this impasse have failed under push-back from the DEA. The anti-drug agency has even adopted policies making it harder for pot shops to hire any armed guards.

But protecting a marijuana dispensary is an appealing option for many veterans. Some use the post as a springboard to local or state law enforcement, while some go on to law school or other criminal justice careers. For others, the job is a career in itself.

The draw is about more than money and a way to keep busy. Bowyer and many of his fellow retired soldiers see themselves as part of an outlaw industry that welcomes people from the frayed edges of society – including veterans whose combat trauma sets them apart from the 9-to-5 world.

“It’s almost a kindred spirit kind of thing,” said Bowyer, who wears a bulletproof vest on the job. “They recognize that there is another group of guys who have their own talents, and that we are here for them.”

Cannabis is an attractive target for thieves

The threat of crime is very real in Colorado, a state with nearly 1,000 licensed dispensaries and 1,400 cultivation permits. In addition to cash, almost everything grown, processed, and sold at these sites is valuable to thieves: According to The Times, $2,000 worth of legal marijuana bought in Colorado can be sold for three times that price elsewhere.

And once the product is stolen, there is little victims can do. Cannabis can’t be traced once it leaves a store and is easy to resell on the black market, said Denver Police Commander James Henning. That makes it even more appealing to burglars than cash.

Marijuana and a gun

“The black market is still booming,” Henning said. “They don’t get cash. That’s usually in the big old safe, and they can’t get into that. Usually, it’s plants and finished product.”

With Marines and other veterans like Bowyer on guard, businesses hope thieves will move on to softer targets. It will take some work, as criminals are an ingenious bunch: Surveillance cameras have caught them sawing through roofs, using police scanners to avoid arrest, and even holding workers hostage on occasion.

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