Marijuana

Risk takers go under lock and key to join pot industry

At home in rural Klickitat County, or even out shopping, Susy Wilson leaves her car key sitting in the ignition.

And her house key? “I’ve lived in the same house for seven years; I don’t know where the key is. We go on vacation and we don’t lock our house door,” said Wilson, who sports a tie-dye shirt and a wispy white Mohawk. “That’s what the lifestyle is out here.”

So to work behind an 8-foot fence with a padlocked gate, to be surrounded by 32 security cameras, feels foreign. But she understands that’s how it has to be.

Because behind the fence, Wilson is growing marijuana.

It’s the latest stage in a colorful 57-year life. She has been a wildland firefighter, a ski-resort caretaker, a massage therapist in the South Pacific. More recently, she drove an all-terrain vehicle around the western United States inventorying utility poles for power companies.

She credits marijuana for much of it. “I was much more risk-averse before I tried marijuana” at age 26, she said.

Washington’s new state-legal marijuana market attracts risk-takers like Wilson.

But formerly freewheeling folks are now finding every aspect of their working lives tightly regulated.

Every window and door has an alarm. Cameras are everywhere shooting video that can’t be discarded for 45 days. Everyone on the premises must wear a name badge.

Before opening WOW Weed, Wilson and her partners and spouse underwent background checks and reported their criminal histories dating back to their youth — minor offenses in Wilson’s case.

A 16-digit bar code follows the pot from sprout to sale, ensuring that none of it goes out the back door. Before shipping it to a buyer, it must be quarantined for a day. On the road, it must stay in Washington, so Wilson’s shipments must travel state Route 14, not the speedier Interstate 84 on the other side of the Columbia River in Oregon.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s policy on marijuana legalization amounts to looking the other way, but only if states prevent the drug from slipping into the black market, into the hands of kids, or across state lines.

Some operations go farther than what is strictly required. Wilson’s fence has razor wire and an extra layer of plastic covering, and on the grounds there’s a separate dog fence to keep Wilson’s German shepherd, Zeus, out of the marijuana garden. Those are the work of one of Wilson’s business partners who she said worries more about security than Wilson does.

“My partner has a bullhorn over there by the door with a big siren on it. He has a great big Taser wand,” Wilson said.

She is unconvinced. “My feeling is if people are coming in with guns ablazing, then I need to get out.”

Wilson expects some intruders will hop the fence to try to swipe buds off the plants when they are in their flowering phase. To prevent that, she said, someone would be stationed on the property at all hours.

All this is expensive. The partners reported $40,000 in startup costs, including $5,000 for the fence.

They saved money with homemade cloning devices for the plants and a $250 fan from Craigslist. Cheap Solo cups for seedlings are a mainstay of the industry.

The plants, too, were bought on Craigslist.

“We bought cuttings from people as opposed to already established clones, because we are on a shoestring and I cannot afford $10 to $15 to $25 per plant to purchase all of these 1,400 plants, so I’d buy cuttings from people if they sold them for less than $5 apiece,” Wilson said, “and even at that we probably spent about $6,000.”

Bowing to the fact that there’s no legal source of seeds or seedlings, state regulators gave growers a 15-day window after getting their licenses to get their original plants, with no questions asked about where they came from.

It’s perhaps the one glaring exception to a tightly secure system.

SECURITY GUARDS

Some of the new marijuana retailers in Washington are hiring private companies to provide security guards.

Some grow operations may do the same. Security companies have been pitching their services to growers.

For those who want to turn their operations into fortresses, there’s a model to the north in British Columbia.

The company Tilray, a Canadian subsidiary of Seattle-based Privateer Holdings, operates a 70,000-square-foot warehouse on Vancouver Island.

“There is a vault inside of it that’s as sophisticated as any bank vault that you’ve ever seen,” said Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Privateer and Tilray. “We have a security team that’s former (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) members, Mounties, on staff.”

But grow operations don’t exactly make for a convenient heist. The sheer volume of pot plays in their favor.

“If SEAL Team 6 broke into the building and got access to the vault,” Kennedy said, “they’d still need three semitrucks to carry the cannabis away.”

Stores might be more tempting targets. That’s where the drug is usable and packaged.

On Friday, a team of security guards stood outside Tacoma’s first pot store, Rainier on Pine.

In sunglasses and a baseball cap, tattoos peeking out of his shirt sleeves, Adan Yescas talked to two other uniformed guards through an ear piece, using nicknames. The other two are Chivo and Mars. He’s Nacho.

A former Marine, Yescas said he drew on his experience protecting business executives here and dignitaries overseas to form security company Apache 6.

Now he has his first client in the marijuana industry and is talking to other potential clients, including growers. He and his employees are military veterans: Marines, Navy SEALs, Army Rangers.

“We have guys who can handle themselves physically,” Yescas said.

That’s critical, because they can’t carry guns at the stores and grow operations they guard, he said.

Preventing firearm use in the pot industry was another one of DOJ’s conditions.

“We really rely on our hand-to-hand combat, taking someone down,” Yescas said.

It’s a different story, he said, when Apache 6 provides escorts to companies moving their cash. He said his guards go armed then. They drive armored sport utility vehicles.

And cash is flowing. Like the DOJ, bank regulators are taking a hands-off approach, but many banks remain reluctant to violate federal law by doing business with marijuana sellers.

Many companies need escorts to private vaults, Yescas said.

BREAK-INS

The state’s tight security measures seem to be working well, said Randy Simmons, deputy director of the Liquor Control Board, which wrote the rules.

In the first five months of legal marijuana growing, he knows of just two attempts at burglaries. Both were stymied by alarms.

One group of burglars got away with nothing more than two cans of energy drink. Cops caught the other burglar, who vaulted a fence but then set off an alarm at the door to a greenhouse.

“Is it overkill?” Simmons said of the strict rules. “It probably is in the long run, but I think giving peace of mind to (overseers) with the Legislature, with DOJ, with the community just to know what’s happening in those stores, I think it makes sense.”

One Eastern Washington sheriff, Richard Lathim, the top cop in Franklin County for 28 years, doesn’t expect a rise in violent crime in his jurisdiction if local authorities allow marijuana businesses. But he sees the potential for some thefts along the lines of one he said occurred at a licensed grow in neighboring Benton County.

A thief got away with a couple of plants — a crime that was solved quickly once the owner offered a $500 reward, Lathim said. A family member turned in the alleged burglar.

“The brother of the suspect decided that money was better than blood,” Lathim said.

Inside a Wenatchee warehouse, the owners of one of the larger indoor grow operations said they aren’t too worried about break-ins.

“Over here we still have guns and we still have dogs. So if the dogs don’t get you, the guns will,” said Eric Cooper of Monkey Grass Farms.

“We don’t have guns here, though,” daughter Katey Cooper clarifies, knowing the rules. “Not on property.”

“No,” her dad says. “But close by.”

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