MISSOURI, USA — Police departments nationwide are experiencing a shortage of officers -- locally, the I-Team found out some of them are trading in their badges and going into an industry even they least expected.
Take Joe Patterson, for example. He spent 11 years with the St. Louis County Police Department, many of them with the Violent Crime and Narcotics Task Force where arresting people for marijuana possession and trafficking was a common occurrence.
That all changed two years ago when Missouri legalized medical marijuana.
“The state of Missouri has put together a very comprehensive plan to keep these businesses heavily regulated, and there's a strong emphasis on security,” Patterson said.
So, these days, Patterson can be found inspecting medical marijuana dispensaries.
“Never in 100 years would I have believed them,” Patterson said of how he would have felt should someone have told him he would be working in the medical marijuana field.
And he’s not the only officer who's made the switch.
Kevin Schnell left a career with the Kansas City Missouri Police Department to launch a business geared toward keeping the medical marijuana industry safe, too. In just 18 months, KC Cann Transport has grown to 23 employees.
“We are getting flooded with resumes right now, many that have law enforcement backgrounds,” Schnell said.
St. Louis Police Officers Association President Jay Schroeder said he’s not surprised.
“Why wouldn't you take the money and go somewhere and do something that's 10 times safer for twice the money sometimes?” he said.
The industry is showing no signs of slowing down.
In Missouri, medical marijuana sales reached $160 million the first year. In the past six months, sales have nearly doubled to $300 million.
In Illinois, sales totaled about $670 million in 2020 and jumped to $1.3 billion in 2021.
And if it seems like marijuana dispensaries are popping up everywhere, they are.
In Missouri, there are 188 dispensaries with another 341 waiting for license approval. In Illinois, there are 110 dispensaries.
Missouri requires dispensaries to have two security audits a year.
So, demand for security experts, especially former officers like Patterson and Schnell, is booming.
“They want the best of the best of the best protecting a facility, so who better than military and law enforcement veterans protecting facilities that have training and experience?” Schnell said.
It’s unknown exactly how many officers who have left the policing profession are going into the new industry.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is now 127 officers short and the St. Louis County Police Department is down 72 officers.
Patterson said he also has personal reasons for leaving the county police department to join the medical marijuana industry.
“For me, having lost both friends and family to the opioid epidemic, if there is an option out there for folks to address their pain in a safer way, I want to be a part of facilitating that even if it's behind the scenes, making sure that people have access to an alternative method instead of risking addiction and possible overdose or death,” he said.
For Schnell, it was a little bit of everything.
“Unlike law enforcement this day and age, we're actually appreciated, people actually want us there. They feel safe, they say it all the time,” he said.
And, it seems to be working.
So far, there have been no robberies reported at a dispensary, Schnell said.
Schnell’s company was the first to move medical marijuana across the state as a licensed transporter. And his company has also won the Greenway Magazine Reader’s Choice Award two years in a row for best security company and best transportation company.
“Some people fear that, because we were cops, we're there to judge them or bust them,” Schnell said. “By no means do we do anything enforcement anymore whatsoever. We're just there to keep the clients, the patients, the facilities all safe, while they can conduct what's now a legalized process.”
Still, he admits he too would have never believed he would be featured in a magazine like that just a few years ago when he was still wearing a badge.