How war veterans are finding purpose in protecting Colorado weed businesses

How war veterans are finding purpose in protecting Colorado weed businesses

VicesOctober 11, 2016 By Isabelle Kohn

Despite a rock-solid work ethic, ability to take orders and dedication towards mission accomplishment, America's veterans are finding it difficult to secure a position in the civilian workforce.

Many employers find that veterans' skills simply don't translate, fear they'll be shipped off for deployment, or subscribe to negative stereotypes that label military personnel as dangerous or mentally unstable. These attitudes are reflected in the national unemployment rate for Gulf War-era II veterans (anyone who has served at any time between September 2001 and now), which at 5.8 percent, is almost a full percentage point higher than the civilian rate. However, while that differential may seem small, it's not. Hundreds of thousands of veterans are facing joblessness, something that's particularly concerning because servicemen and women often have higher medical expenses than the rest of the population as they navigate the brutal mental and physical injuries sustained in war.

Yet, in this climate of unemployment and workplace discrimination, veterans are finding a solution in Colorado.

Here, a curious symbiosis has blossomed between the flourishing marijuana industry and war veterans who've left the service, more than 200 of whom are currently serving in a new way — by protecting weed businesses across the state. Mostly they work as guards, defending dispensaries and grow facilitates from opportunistic burglars attracted to this cash-heavy, high-profit business like flies to ... you know what.

Chris Bowyer, a combat vet turned marijuana security guard, is one of them. When the New York Times interviewed him, he was packing a .40-caliber pistol and a few extra magazines as he checked a perimeter fence for signs of intrusion. He wore a bulletproof vest and handled a notebook. After his inspection, he headed to his office to record his sweep of the grounds in a rigorously organized logbook.

Activities like these provide a strange sense of purpose and comfort for Bowyer, whose experience in armed combat doesn't really translate all that well to say, an office job or restaurant life.

"This is my therapy," he said. "This is what we did in the military."

Some veterans go into cannabis security as a stepping stone towards eventual position in law enforcement or law school. For others, it's a job that gives them purpose and community, as both veterans and marijuana professionals currently operate as outsider groups who face similar stigmas. By combining the two, both parties can lean on each other for support and meaning in a country who is still learning how to accept them. 

“It’s almost a kindred spirit kind of thing,” said Bowyer. In his experience with the weed industry so far, he says growers and sellers “recognize that there is another group of guys who have their own talents, and that we are here for them.”

And really, thank god for that. While no business is impenetrable to burglary, Colorado’s 978 dispensaries and 1,393 marijuana grow houses are particularly vulnerable to it. This is because they deal exclusively in cash — and large quantities of it. Because weed remains federally illegal, most banks won't work with marijuana business and as a result, their only choice is to resort to counting and stockpiling Benjamins.

Yet even more significant than the issue of cash is the issue of how much actual, finished product is worth for criminals. Contrary to popular belief, marijuana itself, more than cash, is what burglars are after. Currently, a pound of marijuana is worth $2,000 in Colorado, but traffic it across state lines and you can easily turn it around for $4,000 or $6,000 in places like Chicago and New York. And, unlike cash, stolen weed is nearly untraceable.

“The black market is still booming,” said Commander James Henning of the Denver Police Department. “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.”

To get to the weed, criminals have taken some surprisingly desperate measures as of late. As the New York Times reports, "Surveillance videos of some burglaries show robbers sawing through the roofs of businesses, tracking law enforcement with police scanners and tying up employees. In one case, in Southern Colorado, a pair of guards spotted four men in tactical gear carrying AR-15 rifles through a field."

A botched robbery at Aurora's Green Heart dispensary even lead to the tragic death of Travis Mason, a security guard and father of three who coincidentally also served as a Marine.

Denver alone recorded 192 burglaries and thefts at weed business in 2015. With 421 dispensaries and grow houses, that's a pretty frequent burglary rate. It's even worse in Aurora, where the small city's 19 operational weed shops have seen 18 burglaries and robberies in the past few years. And though many of these thefts are relatively insignificant items like pot sodas or single joints, some burglars have gotten away with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product.

The situation is so dire that some businesses don't even bother to report break-ins. They're worried that if they do, thieves will see them as targets or it'll attract inspectors who'll find a violation. So, the actual number of break-ins and robberies the weed industry faces is likely much higher.

“Thieves in this industry are getting much more brazen, much more aggressive,” said Ryan Tracy, general manager at the Herbal Cure, of just how serious weed theft is in Colorado's weed industry.

Given this level of threat, having a few, lightly experienced security personnel doesn't really cut it. Instead, cannabis businesses need a more specialized type of protection, something they're finding in highly trained military veterans whose experience and diligence makes them much more capable of stopping burglars in their tracks.

This is something the Iron Protection Group, an organization that finds jobs for war veterans, is acutely aware of. Founded in 2014 by Hunter Garth, Cory Aguillard and Caleb Patton — Marines who had served in Afghanistan but were disoriented in the civilian world — the company keeps former fighters from the disillusioning experience of returning from combat only to sleep on friend's couches, live off ramen noodles, and roam in search of community and purpose because they can't find meaningful work.

Weed, the founders realized, was a surprisingly natural way to transition their unique skills into the workplace. After all, the relationship between pot and soldiers was something that was formalized years ago in Vietnam where soldiers used it deal with the pain and mental anguish of deployment. This is something the Iron Protection Group continues to recognize today; about half of their military vet employees use marijuana, according to Mr. Garth. However, he asks them to refrain from doing so eight hours before a shit.

“Eight hours jigger to trigger,” he said, is the rule.

For vets, the job isn't particularly profitable, but ... it is rewarding. Pay starts at $12 an hour, or $25,000 a year based on a 40-hour workweek. That's not a ton of loot, but it also doesn't reflect the benefits of working for a marijuana business.

What's more important though, is that veterans have found the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to reintegrating into civilian life — a rare and new loophole in the world of employment that allows them to retain their sense of identity, as well as rewards them for their protective instincts. And as long as the marijuana industry continues to grow — and it will — veterans can continue to fight for freedom and security. A slightly more skunky version of those, but ... freedom and security nonetheless.