Licensed marijuana retailers comply with California’s minimum age laws

March 30, 2021

California’s licensed marijuana retailers are taking laws prohibiting sales to recreational users under 21 seriously, a new study shows.

Young-looking patrons without identification were denied entry at every marijuana retailer they visited for the experiment. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety partnered with researchers from NORC at the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota to conduct the study, which also included a survey of law enforcement.

“Licensed marijuana retailers are clearly keen to follow the rules. They’re aware that the industry hasn’t won everybody over yet, and they don’t want to get shut down,” says IIHS Senior Research Scientist Angela Eichelberger, one of the authors of the paper. “It also probably helps that similar laws have been around a long time for alcohol, so ID checks are an established routine.”

Since 2012, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana by adults age 21 and older. All these jurisdictions have minimum marijuana use age laws similar to those implemented across the country for alcohol after the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984.

In California, the penalty for furnishing marijuana to someone under 21 without a prescription for medical use is up to six months in jail and a fine of as much as $500 for a first offense. There could be more serious repercussions for business owners, though the state Bureau of Cannabis Control’s disciplinary guidelines do not spell them out clearly.

To understand how well the regulations are working, the researchers recruited a young-looking 22-year-old man and 23-year-old woman to visit marijuana retailers. Posing as customers, they attempted to enter each establishment without showing identification. After being denied entry, they came back with valid ID and pretended to be browsing while they conducted an on-site survey of the store’s inventory and apparent security practices. Both signed a declaration that they would not buy any marijuana products while working on the study.

The two pseudo-patrons visited 50 retail outlets, three of which they discovered only sold medical marijuana. All 47 stores catering to recreational users denied them entry until they returned with valid identification. About half checked IDs outside the store, and about half checked customers as they entered.

Other potential legal violations not related to customers’ age were observed. One store was offering free samples of edibles, for example, which is against the law in California.

Thirty-seven outlets had some kind of security guard, 10 in plain clothes and the rest uniformed. At the other establishments, a member of the retail staff was responsible for checking IDs. Fifteen stores used an electronic ID scanner, while at the rest staff checked the birthdate with a cursory glance. Similarly, only 13 stores had signs outside indicating that entry was prohibited for anyone under 21 years old, and only 11 had signs posted inside mentioning the minimum age requirement. The observers didn’t see uniformed police officers at any of the outlets.

Though there is room for improvement, the high level of compliance suggests minimum age laws have the potential to be effective in reducing underage marijuana use, as well as marijuana-impaired driving. But it also raises new questions for future research, says James Fell, a scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago and the study’s lead author.

“Obviously, compliance in the legal market isn’t enough to ensure people under 21 don’t have access to recreational marijuana,” says Fell. “It’s also not really clear how much pressure there is on the illegal sellers, now that recreational use isn’t against the law.”

Alcohol vendors were much slower to comply with the national minimum drinking age when it was first introduced. Even decades later, violations remain common in some pockets of the country, such as New York City, where in 2014 law enforcement found that underage decoys were able to buy alcohol without ID in nearly 60 percent of the outlets they audited.

Nevertheless, the minimum drinking age has been one of the most successful alcohol-control policies ever instituted in the United States. Numerous studies show that restoring the drinking age to 21 after many states lowered it in the 1960s and early 1970s reduced teenage fatal crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that laws establishing 21 as the minimum purchase age in every state saved 2,629 lives during 2013-17.

Can we expect similar results for marijuana? Leaving aside questions surrounding how severely marijuana affects driving ability in comparison with alcohol, the two markets are very different. Unlicensed alcohol vendors have virtually disappeared since the repeal of prohibition in 1933, facilitating increasingly effective regulation. In contrast, the underground market for marijuana in California is still 3 times the size of the official one, according to a 2019 report by industry advisers Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics, even though legal sales are already estimated at more than $3 billion. While illegal sellers also face stiffer criminal penalties for selling to underage users, they are already operating in secret.

As part of the new study, the researchers also surveyed 25 California law enforcement offices, and the responses suggest that the large illegal market limits the effectiveness of the minimum age law. More than 80 percent of offices surveyed said the underage users in their jurisdictions get their marijuana from unlicensed sellers. Nearly a third said that the illicit market has grown since the legalization of sales for recreational use, compared with 14 percent who said it has shrunk.

Almost all the law enforcement offices surveyed said they allotted no more than 10 percent of their resources to enforcing marijuana laws. Around 40 percent reported conducting age 21 compliance checks at legal retailers, and a slightly larger proportion said store employees in their jurisdictions are required to complete responsible marijuana sales training programs.

The continued high volume of illicit sales means future research is needed to understand the interaction of the legal and illegal markets, as well as purchases by underage users with fake IDs and “social” purchases made on underage users’ behalf by older friends and relatives.

There’s also room for tougher restrictions.

“California’s laws are relatively strong,” Eichelberger says. “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.”

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