Weed Cops Blaze New Trail

Police moonlighting as marijuana dispensary security experts are safeguarding pot in Massachusetts. But in a state threatening to restart the licensing process, they may be irrelevant.

Joe Amon/The Denver Post, via Getty

At the door to a meeting of medical marijuana champions and green gold rush pioneers at the Massachusetts Department of Health last autumn stood a tall, lean man in a crew cut and a suit.

Jose Martinez (not his real name) had that air about him that screamed “cop”—especially in a room of aging white hippies. Those he greeted we’re on the final leg of a journey to apply for one of up to 35 medical marijuana treatment center licenses the state was offering—the closest thing to golden tickets since Willy Wonka.

To the wannabe winners he gave business cards and fliers, dangling attractive security solutions for their would-be shops. He explained that he’d spent 30 years working in the law enforcement industry at a local, state, and Federal level. And that now, while still doing that, he was working with a private security firm to help potential marijuana dispensary owners plan their security systems.

After the meeting, at a reception held nearby, Martinez was there again, his suit somehow more Law & Order than ganjaprenuer. He pumped hands like a politician, always smiling, and talking up his experience with the Federal government, and how he could use that experience to help the potential medical marijuana treatment center owners.

Martinez was addressing a primary concern among government officials, local towns, communities, and potential dispensary owners: security.

The Department of Public Health, tasked with disseminating the medical marijuana licenses, also had specific security requirements it wanted to see met by the treatment center applicants.

Who better to have on your medical marijuana security team than a man with an exemplary record working with Federal and State government?

“From a security standpoint,” Martinez tells The Daily Beast, “you’re protecting an asset—a bank... a federal building. How would we protect a police department? The same rules apply.”

“It’s not sexy if it’s a bank or federal building. It’s sexy because it’s marijuana.”

Martinez says switching from police work to pot is no different from someone who’s spent 20 years with the FBI changing to corporate security. He’s quite matter-of-fact and forthright about his work, even while admitting he has helped the DEA “behind the scenes” in the past.

The Massachusetts native, who talks with that strong, distinct, and appealing dialect reminiscent of the cops in The Departed, looked at the budding medical marijuana industry in Massachusetts as an opportunity. A way “to be the leader” in the medical marijuana security market, and standardize an industry in need of security.

“We’re doing a legit enterprise, sanctioned by the local and federal government to do business,” he said. “It’s a new market, that no one has ever seen. We want to be in the forefront providing the work, providing the expertise and providing the public with a safe environment.”

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“We use our Federal government ties up front,” he continued. “It’s our advantage. We’re not that X-Y-Z company. For us, we’ll protect [a medical marijuana grow and dispensary] as if it were the Federal Reserve Bank.”

Some might call it stunning hypocrisy when a government agent flip-flops and turns to the pro-drug sector, like when former lock-‘em-up, anti-pot, Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett seeks to open a marijuana dispensary.

Others see it as opportunity, like the former DEA agent who famously jumped ship last month.

In Massachusetts, the trend continues, as current and former law enforcement agents like Martinez moonlighting as security experts cash in on the pot trade—while keeping their government gigs. But then, they face the same problems as the civilian marijuana license seekers they are moonlighting for: their work on the medical marijuana treatment center applications vetted by a Department of Public Health and its subcontractors who are not experts on medical marijuana, or security.

Martinez’s questions for his dispensary clients aren’t too different than those he’d ask others: when is your product most valuable and where it will be stored. Just like in a bank, the vault is where the money is—that’s the area that needs to be secure, not the lobby where the pens might be stolen.

For Martinez, it all comes down to skill. “You have to have someone who knows what they are doing.” He stresses that securing marijuana treatment centers is a “very serious” undertaking. “Our concerns were that these places would spring up with people coming in from out of state doing the work. There should be some criteria—hard security, soft security.”

Mike Marino, president of the non-profit Prospect Lake, was a contender for one of the Massachusetts medical marijuana treatment center licenses. He, like other applicants, saw the value in hiring experienced law enforcement experts to review his application’s security plans, written by a marijuana dispensary expert in neighboring, established medical marijuana state Rhode Island. He wanted to make a good impression, so he had a prominent local police officer review the security section of his app, as well as an international security expert. Both approved and said it looked good.

But Marino didn’t win one of the golden tickets.

And here is where things get squiggly:

“The DPH did a bad job on the vetting process,” said Martinez. “From what I saw… there wasn’t a security expert [reviewing the applications]. As you can see, a lot of the questions and concerns hinge on security.”

The system for awarding the licenses, which Martinez called inaccurate, was based on a scoring system that the Department of Public Health contracted out to ICF International.

“The selection of dispensaries was based on the quality of the applications. This was an objective, merit-based process guided by state procurement principles,” Anne Roach, Media Relations Manager at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, says by email. “An expert review by ICF International scored the applications in areas including public health, security and strength of business plan. The Department's Selection Committee considered the scores, along with geographic diversity, local support, and a strong focus on the ability to meet patient needs, while ensuring public safety.”

In addition, says Martinez, “A lot of these security plans that went in [to the DPH] were based on a fantasy building.”

No one knew whether or not they were going to receive their medical marijuana treatment center license. Few applicants had a location nailed down to accommodate their indoor cultivation and dispensary needs. Many applicants had tentative agreements for real estate contingent upon the receipt of their license.

And because of the “fantasy building” many applicants had to work with, many used templates and boilerplate answers prepared by security experts like Martinez.

Many applicants also, because they shared consultants like Martinez, had very similar information, yet scored dramatically different from one another, causing many to say, “How did we get a lower score? We incorporated the same information. It doesn’t make any sense.”

That’s what happened with Martinez’s clients, and Marino, (who used different consultants from Martinez) experienced the same issue: The consultant Marino used did three other applications as well with nearly the same information, yet again, the scoring was significantly different for very similar information.

The security sections of the applications have been redacted online.

Neither Roach nor ICF responded to questions by deadline on scoring discrepancies for similar information, nor did either of them comment on whether or not a security expert was involved in the review of the security sections of the applications.

“When you go to do [a security] assessment, you look at environment, crime rate. There are a number of factors, and to go look at a field [out in the countryside]… and say secure this… it was a lot of wish list things putting the plans together,” says Martinez. “They have the basics… but actual construction? No one could really answer. For us it was very tough, projecting, coming up with a security plan. Some places didn’t even have architects. Some licensees had prints, a lot of them didn’t. Usually, there would be architectural prints, and there would be a solid foundation of what you are building off of. Some of these structures, they didn’t even know they’d be ok’d by the town.”

Martinez is frustrated with DPH’s decisions and their “open interpretation” on security guidelines. “CVS pharmacy,” he says. “I’m sure they have much more valuable drugs than marijuana,” and the system is in place to license and regulate them. Martinez suggested that the state has models (see section 6.02) that are already functional it could look at to model medical marijuana treatment center licensing on. Martinez acknowledges the paradox of working both with the Federal government, which considers marijuana dangerous and illegal, and new marijuana business pioneers at the state level. “I think it’s hard when you’re a cop, and then all of a sudden it’s legalized,” he said. “It’s a culture shock. I think the other stigma too is people think it’s gonna be like methadone, and it’s not. I think it’s a value. When you’re in pain from cancer, you might want to use it. If it was me, I think I’d be trying it.”

“When you’re in pain, you’ll do anything,” he adds. “But again, it has to be done right.”

And in a medical marijuana state that is rife with fuzzy math and cronyism, it appears doing it right, with security or by medical marijuana patients might be the least of the Commonwealth’s concerns.