When Lemonade — a cannabis dispensary in Tigard — was burglarized, it took the police four hours to respond. Afraid the perpetrators would return, the owners called Zachary Thom, co-owner of Parabellum Protections Security Company in Portland. He was there in 20 minutes, and the shop owners were not even among his clients.
By the end of the night, they were.
Data from the Portland Police Bureau show the city is experiencing a spike in crime similar to metropolitan areas across the country. The civil unrest in downtown Portland last summer and the increased police presence that followed has meant a slower reaction to burglaries. In response, businesses — especially cannabis dispensaries — are turning to private security firms for protection. But hiring security personnel can be expensive, and many dispensary and bar owners fear intimidating security guards could be bad for business.
As a result, security firms are adapting.
By training security guards as budtenders, hosts and barbacks, security companies are making private security less intimidating and more cost-efficient.
The new generation of security companies is also projecting a less militarized approach, training guards in hand-to-hand combat and de-escalation techniques and wearing branded swag and street clothes to project a fun, friendlier image.
Cannabis products are high-value and easy to sell illegally, making them particularly vulnerable to theft – and due to federal banking policies still deal in cash. Obtaining business insurance is also difficult for dispensaries, since national insurers will not cover cannabis companies without charging a larger premium.
This means crimes are more frequent, and more damaging – even lethal.
“Demand is very high on the dispensary side of things, but the cannabis industry has been crippled at every angle. Criminals are a lot more brazen than they were before,” says Thomas Baker, who co-owns Parabellum Protections along with Thom. “The incidents downtown have caused a lot of rift between the law enforcement and the people. We don’t wear any badge and we don’t dress in a way that looks overly militant. There is a fine line you have to ride.”
The scope of Oregon’s cannabis industry crime problem came into focus on Dec. 14, 2020, when a gang of robbers shot 44-year old father Michael Arthur to death at Cured Green Dispensary in Portland. Dispensary robberies doubled in 2020, according to Jesse Bontecou, co-director of the Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association.
One cannabis store owner, who chose to remain anonymous, said she did not trust the police’s ability to protect her and her employees. “Police don’t take burglaries and robberies of dispensaries as seriously as they do for other businesses,” she says.
Just a year old, Parabellum Protections already has contracts with several Oregon dispensaries, including Cookies. The company’s personnel all have extensive martial arts experience, and do not require firearms to subdue a potential threat. Some members of the team have experience as budtenders, meaning they are able to work and serve customers when not neutralizing threats. This helps add to the company’s bottom line, offsetting the salary of a security guard, which is a cost-prohibitive to many cannabis operations.
Like air marshals, staying undercover helps security guards fly under the radar of potential criminals, meaning a robber might very well draw their weapon on exactly the wrong person. It also means security personnel must maintain a personable demeanor to interact with customers.
“It’s not about intimidation or fear, it’s about friendliness. You have to have customer service skills to be in this industry now,” say Baker. “We don’t believe a security guard should just be a warm body.”
Like Parabellum, Employees of Skynet Security in Portland have martial arts experience, and include many professional fighters and jiu-jitsu practitioners. They are trained as restaurant and bar employees before they receive conventional security training.
But violence is meant to be avoided at all costs: Skynet employees wear body cameras, and are not allowed to put hands on anyone unless the other party becomes violent.
“It used to be a security guard who would just beat someone up and toss them outside, but those days are over. Everyone is buttoning up now,” says Raymond Hill, owner of Skynet Security in Portland. “A lot of people have seen police and security forces misused.”
Hill’s company serves bars and restaurants in Portland’s Pearl District, including Two Wrongs Bar and River Pig Saloon. For Hill, preventing incidents is the primary focus of his company.
“If a group of guys is being rowdy, sometimes we’ll send a person with a phone camera to start recording them. That usually gets them to leave fast.”
More undercover security could create an industry-wide effect. Criminals looking for a score will be unable to determine which businesses have security and which ones do not. As the summer crime spike continues, more companies could decide private security is worth the investment. An investment which is now more affordable when a security guard can do the work of an employee.
“Private security looks a lot more reasonable expense when your security guard can actually help your bottom line,” says Hill.