Cracking the Code on Cannabis Safes

March 1, 2021
It pays for locksmiths to know the ins and outs of this rapidly growing market.

If you’ll excuse the pun, there’s a lot of green in the cannabis market.

The number of states that allow the sale of recreational or medical cannabis continues to increase, and a new administration seen as more friendly towards nationwide legalization has forecasters predicting massive growth of the industry. However, during the civil unrest in summer 2020, looters targeted cannabis businesses and made off with hundreds of thousands of dollars in products and profits that were stored in insecure safes.

In other words, there’s a real demand for security at cannabis dispensaries. This is a potentially good lucrative market for locksmiths, so it’s worth knowing the ins and outs about safes that pertain to the cannabis industry.

“Cannabis businesses need a high-security safe that is fire- and burglary-resistant,” says Tiffany Havens, executive sales manager for Socal Safe, which makes cannabis safes. “They need more than a gun safe, which is all many states require.”

Most state cannabis legislation mandates an 800-pound safe bolted to the floor. Regulations list few other requirements besides storing finished marijuana in a secure locked safe or vault in such a manner as to prevent diversion, theft and loss. The loopholes in many states allow cannabis owners to purchase a gun-safe equivalent, which provides limited protection from heat or physical access. Manufacturers typically don’t design such safes to withstand physical attack nor consider them to be a commercial defense against a breach.

“Often, owners come to us asking for the most inexpensive safe they can get instead of asking for the most secure one,” says Andy Jennings, who handles commercial sales for, headquartered in Spokane, Washington.

Insurance companies once accepted less expensive and less secure safes too. But paying out claims of $300,000 and more changed their tune. Today, those same companies give preferential rates to cannabis operations that use safes that meet Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) guidelines.

Adhering to DEA Diversion Control physical-storage guidance set forth in federal regulations provides better protection for cannabis businesses. The DEA guidance permits a safe or steel cabinet that provides 30 man-minutes against surreptitious entry, 10 man-minutes against forced entry, 20 man-hours against lock manipulation and 20 man-hours against radiological techniques. 

Insurance companies also give preference to owners who have safes that meet specific UL and Tool and Lock (TL) ratings.

Ratings Watch

Cannabis safes are just commercial safes that store cannabis products or cash. However, preferred safes carry a TL rating of at least 15.

TL-15 cannabis safes weigh a minimum of 750 pounds and anchor to the floor. Their body walls are at least 1-inch-thick open-hearth steel and have a minimum tensile strength of 50,000 pounds per square inch (PSI). Manufacturers fasten the walls in a manner equivalent to a continuous one-quarter-inch penetration weld of open-hearth steel that has a minimum tensile strength of 50,000 PSI. The safes have a hole that’s one-quarter of an inch or less that accommodates electrical conductors but provides no direct view of the door or locking mechanism. TL-15 safes use a UL-listed Group II, 1 or 1R combination lock or a UL-listed high-security electronic lock rated as Type 1. 

These features combine to make a safe that withstands entry from someone who uses common hand tools, drills, punches, hammers and pressure-applying devices for a net working time of 15 minutes.

A TL-30 safe beefs up the protection. Although its construction is largely identical to that of a TL-15 safe, a TL-30 safe stands up to a few more tools, including abrasive cutting wheels and power saws, and for a longer period — 30 minutes. 

A TL-30X6 safe goes even further. Although materials and other specs are similar to those of TL-30 safes, the body and door of a TL-30X6 safe resists entry on all six sides for a net working time of 30 minutes. The safe also withstands attacks from picking tools, mechanical or portable electric tools, grinding points and carbide drills, in addition to other methods described.

Finally, a TRTL-30-X6 safe is torch- and tool-resistant on all six sides. It, too, withstands an attack for 30 minutes. Being tool-resistant gives these safes one of the highest burglar ratings on the market.

UL also rates safes for fire resistance. Class 350 safes protect paper documents; Class 150 safes protect magnetic tape and photographic film; and so on. Safes also receive an hourly rating for fire resistance, which can be from 30 minutes to four hours. 

Lock Selection

Lock selection for cannabis safes is a matter of preference. Business owners can choose between a mechanical dial lock or a digital lock for their cannabis safes. Many owners select a UL-listed 1R commercial-grade lock, which meets DEA security requirements, Jennings reports.

These locks have a Teflon tumbler inside instead of brass. “Brass, after years of use, will wear, and you can hear where the tumblers stopped and pick up the combination,” Jennings says. “With a Teflon tumbler, they cannot pick up the click.”

Mechanical dial locks are more difficult to use but very secure. With proper care and service, these systems last many years. However, Jennings says many cannabis operations select digital locks, because it’s faster to enter a six-digit code than to operate a dial lock.

Setting user codes also is simplified on a digital lock. Operators follow prompts on the lock’s digital screen. Typically, they enter a six-digit code that comes with the safe followed by the pound sign. From there, they set codes for each user. Business operators easily can change codes should a worker’s employment end.

“This is a huge advantage over a mechanical spin dial where everyone has the same code,” Jennings says. “The tradeoff is in maintenance and cost. A less expensive mechanical dial lock lasts longer, whereas a digital lock has small electronic parts that can corrode and fail, and then they have to replace the lock.”

Some digital locks offer an auditable record of who opened and closed the safe. Typically, this feature is available only on high-end digital locks. “When you get to 30–40 users, an auditable lock is preferred,” Havens says.

Some safes use a mechanical dial lock and a digital lock, with the combination lock set for two to three numbers. Operators can use the digital lock during business hours and turn the combination dial at night as an added security feature. An employee then would have to enter the combination in the morning to open the safe again. This also is aimed at having fewer people being able to gain access to the safe. “That way, even if someone has the code, if that combo dial is not open, they’re not getting in,” Havens says. 

A time-delay combination lock is another option, according to Havens. These digital, electronic combination locks are set with a timer that delays unlocking during a user-definable delay period, typically less than one hour.

It’s a good idea to rig digital locks through a company’s alarm system. This ensures that the alarm system and the safe lock work together. All that’s required is wiring the keypad through the main alarm system. After the lock is wired, employees would be able to enter a duress code if someone forced them to enter the safe, and, by doing so, silently notify police that a robbery was underway.  

Failures and Malfunctions

When a digital lock fails, you might have to come out and open the safe. Often, it’s as simple as replacing the battery, which Havens reports operators often overlook, despite repeated alerts about low batteries. When a mechanical lock fails, you have to drill into the safe to open it and then replace the lock.

Jennings and Havens advise against using biometric locks but warn that locksmiths still might encounter them when servicing cannabis safes. “While we have those locks available, we try to educate our customers about them,” Jennings says. “The technology just isn’t there yet. A biometric lock might work well for an 18-year-old, but it won’t work as well for a 50-year-old, because your fingerprint grooves are not as deep as you age. Biometric locks are very convenient when they work, but the likelihood that they work all the time is not there.”

Locksmiths also might be called out whenever the time changes at daylight saving time, because the user forgot to change a digital lock’s clock. Instead of it being 8 a.m., now it’s 9 a.m., the store is open and the operator can’t get into the safe. Another common issue is when someone enters the wrong number several times and gets locked out. A call to the safe distributor’s customer-service line can solve these issues.

Should a malfunction require a lock replacement, locksmiths will want to work with the safe distributor. A customer-service team can walk locksmiths through the drill points for the safe and the lock. “We will tell them, ‘you’re going to drill here and you’re going to encounter this and you’re going to do this,’ and, hopefully, it will open up the line,” Havens says. “If the unit opens, then there will be minimum repair, and the integrity of the safe will remain intact.”

There’s no room for a malfunction when piles of cash and product valued in the millions are involved.

Patrick Chown is the owner and president of security system integrator, Safe and Sound Security, and the president of Seed to Sale Security, a national brand serving the cannabis industry. Seed to Sale Security provides security system installation, cannabis security plans and cannabis security consulting to cannabis companies.