Should Pot Shops Use Facial Recognition Technology to Catch Thieves?
Dispensaries are implementing facial recognition software to prevent crime, but will the controversial technology create more problems than it will solve?
Published on August 5, 2019

Marijuana dispensaries are beginning to use facial recognition software to help employees and local authorities catch shoplifters and staff members giving themselves five-finger discounts. But is this necessary, and furthermore, is it even a good idea?

According to a new report by VICE’s Motherboard, several pot shops have already begun rolling out facial recognition technology. This software logs an individual’s facial characteristics into massive databases that can match the person to police mugshots, spot if they’re carrying a concealed weapon, or confirm if they’re stealing company property while on the clock.

There are no state laws that prevent customers with criminal records from purchasing legal cannabis. But, as it always goes with mass surveillance, the potential to abuse this technology is higher than some of the weed industry’s most loyal customers.

"It is hard, if not impossible, to find an example of a surveillance technology that has not been turned against groups that are already vulnerable in our structurally inequitable system," Shankar Narayan, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, told VICE.

The ACLU’s website mentions that when private facial technology joins forces with state image databases, privacy and other constitutional concerns go right out the window.

“The biggest danger is that this technology will be used for general, suspicionless surveillance systems,” the ACLU website states. “State motor vehicles agencies possess high-quality photographs of most citizens that are a natural source for face recognition programs and could easily be combined with public surveillance or other cameras in the construction of a comprehensive system of identification and tracking.”

Gallery — Photos of Cops Smoking Weed:

In recent years, police departments across the US have grossly abused facial recognition technology to make quick and easy busts. Cops will feed flawed police sketches or even photos of celebrities who may resemble the suspect into facial recognition software. The most (in)famous example used images of actor Woody Harrelson to catch a beer thief in New York, but that case serves as just one (possible) success in a sea of failures. In May, Popular Mechanics detailed how this lazy investigation method often leads the costly arrests of the wrong suspects.

Facial recognition isn’t perfect. Wearing sunglasses or Juggalo makeup can thwart facial recognition’s algorithms. The technology isn’t smart enough yet to discern tiny, minute physical details of someone’s face, so cameras getting Person A confused with Person B isn’t just some hypothetical dystopian scenario; it’s already been happening.

Of course, the legal weed industry, which is struggling to pay its bills since it can’t make tax write-offs, wouldn’t implement such expensive technology for no good reason. Theft of weed products from shoppers and employees alike has been an incredibly rampant problem since the industry’s inception. And dispensary robberies are usually staged by company insiders, such as current or former employees.

Since the weed industry’s regulatory frameworks conflict with federal laws, no comprehensive data exists for the losses associated with dispensary thefts or robberies. However, dispensary robberies have increased in states with legal weed. Otherwise, dispensaries have little to no effect on local crime rates.

"Despite what developers may say, facial recognition technology has the potential to reinforce the racist and classist policies of prohibition,” Kamani Jefferson, founder of North Star Liberty Group, told VICE. “It's a classic case of a slippery slope, and until there's a guarantee that not one innocent person will be thrown in jail due to the faults of this technology, I wouldn't recommend cannabis facilities waste their money."

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Randy Robinson
Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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