If you see a nondescript-looking Ford Transit cargo van in one of the 33 US states (and Washington, DC) where marijuana has been legalized in one form or another, there’s a chance it’s carrying weed, cash, or both.
Since pot is still illegal under federal law, the industry is largely shut out of the federally regulated banking system. This means most legal cannabis businesses often have thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars in cash and product on hand. Cannabis needs to get from warehouse to retail store. Cash needs to be transported from stores to private vaults, to the handful of state-chartered credit unions that will work with cannabis businesses, and to local IRS offices. (Yes, marijuana businesses pay taxes).
The big armored trucks that service banks generally weigh more than 10,000 lbs, the threshold at which federal law requires registration as a commercial vehicle with the US Department of Transportation (DOT). But DOT-licensed vehicles are prohibited by the feds from hauling marijuana.
In order to transport both pot and cash, a new niche of the armored car industry has emerged. It largely uses Ford Transits and similar models—the nearly identical Dodge Sprinter, for instance—that weigh under five tons, thereby avoiding federal oversight so long as they do not cross state lines.
Though not as rugged as the armored cars banks use, the Transits used by cannabis businesses undergo all kinds of security upgrades that get them close enough.
“The glass alone is worth more than a motor and transmission,” Jeff Breier, COO of Hardcar Security, a Palm Springs, California company that services the cannabis industry, told Business Fleet magazine.
Hardcar’s fleet of 10 Ford Transit vans are equipped with GPS trackers—a California state requirement—kill switches that can cut the engine remotely, blast-proof doors, and an alert system that notifies Hardcar and the police in case of emergency. Hardcar’s system also routes drivers away from internal border checkpoints manned by federal authorities. (In California, moving pot “by means of aircraft, watercraft, drone, rail, human powered vehicle, and unmanned vehicle is prohibited.”)
For those businesses big enough to require their own armored fleets, Quality Coachworks, located in Southern California, can deliver an armored Ford Transit cannabis van in seven to 10 working days, which run about $60,000.
One special feature that is becoming a standard in the industry: digital cashboxes programmed to open only when the vehicle arrives at its destination.
Ford Transits have even become popular in Canada, where marijuana is legal at the federal level and the same sort of weight regulations don’t apply as in the US.
In that market, it’s the Transit’s plain look that makes it attractive, as one vendor, INKAS Armored Vehicle Manufacturing of Toronto, touts on its website. “With security the number one consideration, an armored cash in transit vehicle that is highly discreet and looks no different to any other van makes it ideal for cannabis transportation,” it says.
It comes with all the usual protections, including run-flat tires. The passenger compartment is rated to stop rounds up to a .44 magnum, with upgrades available.
Not all cannabis-compliant vans are equipped for battle.
Some of them are delivered unarmored, which is cheaper, and in fact some pot businesses believe fortifying their vehicles against armed attackers is overkill.
“We make our delivery vehicles anonymous,” Smoke Wallin, CEO of California grower/distributor Vertical, tells Quartz. A former marketing executive in the liquor industry, Wallin says he’d love to “wrap them in branding, but my COO said no.”
That COO, Drew Milburn, says robberies are rare. The company isn’t going to risk somebody’s life over the contents of one of their vans, which, he explains, are typically not carrying astronomical amounts of cash or product anyway. Vertical’s warehouses, on the other hand, are packed with a lot of both and are therefore highly secure.
Says Milburn, “If somebody wants to take the van, let them take the van.”