Before he can hoist a suitcase filled with $385,000 from the back of an unmarked Chevy Suburban in Silver Lake, Keiko Arroyo first has to set aside an AR-15 rifle draped over his left leg, step out from the passenger seat, and avoid an electric bike perched alongside Sunset Boulevard. While his partner, James King, keeps a watchful eye, Arroyo circles to the back of the vehicle and pulls out an inconspicuous suitcase, its grayish color and roller wheels belying the stacks of cannabis cash inside.
The two barrel-chested former Marines stick out among the dog walkers and coffee drinkers, but they have found a niche crisscrossing California, providing armed transport for weed businesses. It’s a burgeoning security industry that is flourishing since marijuana legalization, and one that prizes the warfare skills that a generation of soldiers honed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as marijuana sales step out of the shadows, it is unclear if the former soldiers plying their trade in cannabis will have a role for much longer.
California’s streets are flooded with weed products and cash, but national banks and major security companies won’t touch the stuff. Holding pot revenue could run them afoul of federal laws, so smaller security firms, secret vaults, and a contingent of battle-hardened veterans have stepped into the gap.
Arroyo and King first worked together at a high-end jewelry store 15 years ago and later helped secure a Miami neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. For them the cannabis boom is an unexpected step in their quest for a career unbound by 9-to-5 gigs. “We’re not cubicle people,” says Arroyo, a former marksmanship instructor.
King, 51, left the military in 1993 when the Marines tried to relegate him to a desk job after an injury. A self-described adrenaline junkie, he went on to work for defense contractors like Blackwater until 2014. He describes driving convoys through mountain roads in Afghanistan and training border police, a far cry from chauffeuring weed revenue in the carpool lane. “The stress level isn’t as high,” says King, but the techniques are similar. “Though I’m not concerned about someone popping over that wall with an RPG.”
One California security company is on track to transport more than $100 million of marijuana products and cash this year.
The pair work for Omni Security Transportation, which employs dozens of mostly former soldiers navigating traffic in Southern California and forested Humboldt County for the marijuana industry. Omni is on track to transport more than $100 million of marijuana products and cash this year, says owner Chris Cronin, a fraction of the state’s expanding multibillion-dollar weed trade.
“We don’t hire guys that worked on jet planes or computers. We hire guys that have actually been shot at and shot back in anger,” Cronin says. “Those are the guys that know pressure and can handle it.”
Despite being legalized recreationally in 2016, the pot business has retained the flavor of its underground days: The industry is risky and crime prone with small, high-value products and a thriving black market. While regulators set requirements on how to shuttle cannabis, they never set guidelines on how to handle a million dollars stuffed into a garbage bag. Moving cash is “generally at the discretion of the business owner,” says California Highway Patrol spokesperson Jaime Coffee. The current situation has left many businesspeople looking for a safe place to stash piles of cash, wary of their employees and suspicious of being followed. “It’s a huge safety concern,” says lawyer Alison Malsbury, who works with weed vendors. “It’s the biggest problem facing the industry.”
The CHP says it has not identified a significant increase in cannabis-related roadway crimes, but fears have been stoked. In April the FBI arrested a trio of men for allegedly planning to kidnap and rob a Humboldt grower of almost $3 million; a San Diego cash courier was beaten and robbed last year. According to Terry Blevins, an industry consultant and owner of L.A.-based Armaplex Security, pot-related robberies are carried out by thieves tipped off by employees. Many businesses, Blevins says, are forgoing pricey security measures, with a majority of shipments still handled by “average Joes” that provide a soft target for poachers. But better-capitalized marijuana businesses are paying for protection and creating a niche for the soldiers employed by Omni and competing firms.
On a recent Wednesday, Arroyo and King—clad in bulletproof vests—picked up cash from an undisclosed vault in San Diego and cruised up I-5 on a delivery for a weed entrepreneur, who declined to be identified for this story. “We know it’s just L.A., but we don’t get complacent,” says Arroyo, 55, who now heads Omni’s Southern California operations. “Complacency is the killer.”
Their protocol for the two-hour ride includes a weapon within three feet, extra ammo and the AR-15, dubbed “Roxy.” If cargo or cash tops $1 million, the pair is followed by a second vehicle.
Former soldiers are only a small part of the cannabis protection world, which relies largely on low-wage guard details at dispensaries. But working as couriers and fortifying remote farms in Humboldt offer significantly higher earnings. Arroyo says daily pay for his guards ranges from $350 to $500. Guards in Humboldt earn up to $6,000 a month.
In addition to the paychecks, some veterans gravitate toward safeguarding cannabis because of a kinship with the culture and product, extending a relationship solidified in the Vietnam War when service members used pot to treat physical and mental traumas. “I think the medicinal qualities are really speaking to a lot of veterans, and on the security side, it is something that they know,” says Caleb Patton, a former Marine infantryman now leading Denver-based Iron Protection Group, a veteran-heavy marijuana security company that is expanding into California.
Spencer Gilbert, 39, a former Navy airplane technician, found work as a security guard in Los Angeles, including a stint for the high-end weed retailer MedMen. After struggling with homelessness and using cannabis as self-medication, he says the job provided a veteran-friendly option with like-minded coworkers. “I’m making enough to be a roommate; it’s enough to get by,” says Gilbert, who earns $22 an hour. “It basically got me off the street.”
About 200,000 men and women leave the military each year. According to Sara Kintzle, an associate professor at USC specializing in veterans’ issues, many discharged soldiers are disappointed by their civilian job prospects. The problem, she says, is exacerbated for infantrymen, whose combat skills have few applications outside law enforcement. “They get out, and they say, ‘I can’t even get hired as a manager at a fast-food restaurant.’ That’s very demoralizing coming from something where they sow a lot of pride,” says Kintzle.
The nation’s largest and third-largest veteran populations are in L.A. and San Diego counties, respectively, with Camp Pendleton, the massive Marine training facility abutting the coast, providing ripe recruitment for security firms. “Guys are arriving from the desert every single day,” states Omni’s Cronin. “I have no shortage.”
However, Kintzle and veterans elsewhere in the weed industry caution against pigeonholing soldiers into an isolated group of cannabis commandos. Research shows a community of fellow service members is important to post-military integration, but it’s a “double-edged sword,” says Kintzle. “We want to create a society in which we have lots of options. Hopefully these jobs are just one of many.”
There is some concern that soldiers coming back from the hardships of war and suffering from PTSD are not the right fit for high-stress protection roles. Veterans advocates are quick to reject stereotypes of trauma-rattled former service members, but Danielle Schumacher, CEO of THC Staffing, said she approaches discharged soldiers with caution. “If they’re out here sending me their résumé trying to get an entry-level job, they’re not in a good place,” she states. “What I see is they’re disillusioned.”
There is some concern that soldiers coming back from the hardships of war and suffering from PTSD are not the right fit for high-stress protection roles.
The larger question looming over the industry, though, is whether the space created for veterans in the early years of the cannabis boom will remain, as competition increases and the possibility of wide-spread banking access threatens to upend the nascent field. If legalized federally, the heavily armed cash-in-transit business will be lost to commonplace banking practices that most industries take for granted. Meanwhile, the security behemoth Brinks has already entered the cannabis transport market in Canada and is poised to compete against the smaller companies that have flourished under the cover of a federal ban.
Blevins says protection companies are proliferating, and wages are sinking as supply meets demand. “Whoever does it cheaper is going to get the work,” he says.
Cronin thinks his company’s brand of combat-ready vets combined with the weed world’s distaste for corporate culture will give him a leg up once nationwide legalization takes hold. Arroyo is less circumspect. “Once it’s federally regulated, companies like Brinks will take over,” he says. Neither he nor King would take a job at that company; it’s too corporate, they say, and wages are too low. “I’m not putting on a Brinks uniform. … They’re just driving for 4 p.m.,” says Arroyo. “We’re in the protection business, and we’re applying that to cannabis right now. If Brinks takes it over, we’ll do something else.”