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Study: California’s licensed cannabis shops aren’t selling to minors

Researchers did find minor violations of state law at some legal shops. But they say the illicit market is a far bigger problem.

Madison Koehn, a receptionist at Catalyst Cannabis, scans the back of a drivers license to verify the age of the customer in Santa Ana on Monday, April 5, 2021. A new study found California’s licensed cannabis shops are doing a good job of preventing minors from getting in. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

California’s licensed cannabis shops are doing an excellent job at preventing sales to minors, according to a first-of-its-kind study commissioned by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

That means the industry is living up to a key promise advocates made when voters legalized cannabis for adults 21 and older nearly five years ago.

“Licensed marijuana retailers are clearly keen to follow the rules,” said Angela Eichelberger, a research scientist with the Insurance Institute who authored the report with University of Chicago and University of Minnesota experts.

“They’re aware that the industry hasn’t won everybody over yet, and they don’t want to get shut down.”

The study did find isolated violations of state law at some legal shops, such as workers giving out free samples of edibles. And researchers offered suggestions to further boost protections for minors. But the study’s authors said the California’s still vibrant world of unlicensed retailers is the biggest problem when it comes to selling cannabis to underage consumers. Statewide, the illicit market remains three times larger than the legal market, since the lack of taxes and regulations allows unlicensed shops to sell cheaper products to anyone who comes shopping — including minors.

Industry advocates say the situation in California presents a clear lesson for states such as New York and New Mexico that are just launching new recreational cannabis industries and want to keep marijuana away from minors.

“The legal market is solving these problems,” said Elliot Lewis, CEO of Catalyst Cannabis Co., which has five licensed shops in Los Angeles and Orange counties. “But in the illicit market, it’s obviously open season.”

The penalty in California for giving marijuana to someone under 21 without a doctor’s recommendation for medical use is up to six months in jail and a fine of as much as $500 for a first offense. But there are other possible repercussions for legitimate business owners, who risk losing competitive state licenses that can take months and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain.

In Los Angeles, for example, licensed cannabis shops that even let someone under 21 years old in the door can face a fine and a suspended or revoked license, according to Michelle Garakian, assistant executive director of the city’s Department of Cannabis Regulation. Retailer Lewis suggested operators who have complied with other expenses and formalities of getting a license also want to follow the rule about selling to minors.

“First of all, we’re against youth smoking cannabis,” Lewis said, noting studies that show habitual cannabis use can pose brain development problems for people up to 25 years old. But he added, “I think the licenses have become so valuable and coveted that everyone is super careful to not let a fake ID through.”

Lewis assumes that’s why he’s never heard of a legal shop getting busted for selling to a minor.

To test how California shops are handling age limits on sales, authors of the Insurance Institute study recruited a “young-looking” 22-year-old man and 23-year-old woman to visit 47 randomly chosen recreational marijuana retailers in January 2020. They made stops at stores throughout the state, including in Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Bernardino and Perris.

The decoys posed as potential customers and attempted to enter each shop without showing identification. About half of the stores asked for IDs outside, while the other half checked customers as they entered. None of the 47 licensed shops allowed them in without ID.

After they were blocked from entering the cannabis shops, the decoys changed their appearances a bit, then went back with valid ID and pretended to browse while they surveyed the store’s inventory and security practices.

Only 13 stores had signs outside saying customers had to be 21 to enter, according to the study, while 11 had such signage inside.

Thirty-seven shops had some kind of security guard. At the other stores, a salesperson was responsible for checking IDs.

Fifteen stores used an electronic ID scanner, while staff at the other stores just glanced at the birthdate on the card. Catalyst Cannabis’s five Southern California shops all use scanners to verify ID, Lewis said.

“It’s our livelihood, so we take every precaution we possibly can.”

Law enforcement officers surveyed for the Insurance Institute study said their departments devote no more than 10% of their resources to enforcing marijuana laws, with most related crimes now downgraded to misdemeanors. But 40% said they do occasional age-compliance checks at licensed marijuana stores.

Los Angeles’s cannabis department also makes random visits to licensed shops to check for compliance, Garakian noted. The city is now considering a proposal from Council President Nury Martinez that would create a cannabis enforcement program similar to L.A.’s Tobacco Enforcement Program, where decoys test whether shops are selling products to minors.

After the drinking age was set at 21 nationally in 1984, authors of the Insurance Institute study noted alcohol vendors were much slower to comply with the new requirements than cannabis retailers appear to be. Even decades later, researchers said violations of the national age limits on alcohol remain common in some pockets of the country. In New York City, for example, law enforcement in 2014 found that underage decoys were able to buy booze without ID in nearly 60% of the shops they audited.

Still, researchers say the minimum drinking age has dramatically reduced teenage fatal crashes, saving an estimated 2,629 lives from 2013 to 2017.

The alcohol and cannabis markets are different, though. Unlicensed alcohol vendors have virtually disappeared since the repeal of prohibition in 1933, researchers note, while the underground market for marijuana in California is thriving.

More than 80% of surveyed law enforcement officers said the underage users in their jurisdictions get their marijuana from unlicensed sellers. And nearly a third said that the illicit market has grown since the legalization of sales for recreational use.

“Obviously, compliance in the legal market isn’t enough to ensure people under 21 don’t have access to recreational marijuana,” said James Fell, a scientist at University of Chicago’s NORC research center and the study’s lead author. “It’s also not really clear how much pressure there is on the illegal sellers, now that recreational use isn’t against the law.”

Lewis believes the only way legal shops will ever start to outnumber illicit shops in California is if more cities welcome the regulated industry and if taxes are lowered enough that they can make prices competitive with the underground market.

Along with addressing the illicit market, authors of the study say there’s also room for other laws aimed at keeping cannabis away from kids. RELATED ARTICLES

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“California’s laws are relatively strong,” Eichelberger said. “But the state still doesn’t have a law against using fake IDs to buy marijuana, or laws making parents and party hosts liable for underage consumption that occurs on their premises, like those that have been widely implemented for alcohol.”

As a father of four, Elliot said he believes honest conversations with kids about the safety concerns surrounding young people consuming cannabis — particularly untested products bought from illicit sellers — is the best way to curb the problem.

“My main point,” he said, “is to drive home that anything not done in moderation can be destructive in your life.”

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