CHICAGO – Medical marijuana in Illinois will be encased in vaults, monitored by security guards and protected by fingerprint-recognition biometrics.
It will be grown in enclosed, locked facilities. Silent alarms, 24-hour video surveillance and bulletproof glass will safeguard the retail centers where patients with special IDs will be escorted to their cars after buying pot.
That's the flinty picture painted by business owners competing for a limited number of marijuana cultivation and dispensary permits under the state's new law. A detailed security plan will give an edge in the scoring, so many of the applicants say they're exceeding the law's already-strict requirements.
"You'd have to stage an 'Ocean's Eleven'-style assault and be a master safecracker to get to the product," said Erik Williams of Colorado-based Gaia Plant-Based Medicine, an operation pursuing retail sites and cultivation centers in Illinois.
Terry Gainer, adviser for Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries, said security will be "much like Fort Knox." Green Thumb has purchased land in Rock Island and leased a warehouse in Normal, hoping to win permits there.
A former Illinois State Police director and Chicago police detective, Gainer most recently served as U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms. Green Thumb also has hired Illinois-based security firm Hillard Heintze, founded by former U.S. Secret Service agent Arnette Heintze and former Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard.
Those are big guns. While protecting the crop, Gainer said, they also have their eyes on the cash. With banks hesitant to serve the industry because of federal law, marijuana businesses in Colorado and elsewhere deal mostly in currency. It's still unclear whether Illinois banks will provide their services.
Illinois requires cultivation centers to have 24-hour closed-circuit television surveillance of all entrances and exits, parking lots, alleys and the entire inside of the facility, except for restrooms and the executive office.
Time-stamped recorded video must be kept for 90 days on site and another 90 days off site. Each center must have a printer capable of immediately producing a clear still photo from video. Dispensaries have similar requirements.
In Bloomington, a company called Erba LLC plans to apply for one dispensary permit.
"Every single inch of our building will be covered under camera surveillance," said Erba partner Adam Rosengren of Bloomington. Multiple $4,000 cameras in the parking lot will be capable of capturing readable images of vehicle license plates. Security personnel will be available to escort patients to their cars, he said.
Experts give wildly differing estimates of total costs.
"We outfitted a world-class 315,000-square-foot facility in Nova Scotia and the security with biometrics (was) around $1.8 million," said Michael Mayes, CEO of Chicago-based Quantum 9 Inc., a consulting company.
Others say less: Up to $150,000 for a "bells and whistles" system for a grow operation in Washington state, said Noah Stokes of Oregon-based CannaGuard Security.
"Think casino. Every square foot of the cultivation facility is going to be covered by the cameras," said Charles Houghton, co-owner of Medical Marijuana Business Academy, which is offering a $299 two-day seminar in Chicago to cover security and other matters.
To prevent internal theft, employees at some growing centers will be required to wear pocketless color-coded uniforms: pocketless to prevent product from being smuggled out, color-coded to discourage video-monitored workers from wandering into restricted zones.
"If we see an employee in a bright green uniform who's not in the trim section and doesn't have someone in a black uniform right next to the employee, we know something's wrong," said Williams of Gaia Plant-Based Medicine.
The security plan is worth about 20 percent of the merit-based application process. The Illinois State Police is hiring eight investigators to review the plans, which will be forwarded to ISP.
"We want to stress that the ISP will not conduct pre-application reviews, provide consultation or accept security plans directly from an applicant," said state police spokeswoman Monique Bond.
Former lawman Gainer found some irony in his new role of protecting the interests of marijuana growers and dealers.
"When I was a 20-year-old policeman in 1968, it wasn't something I thought I'd be involved in all these years later," he said.