In the United States the legalization of marijuana — whether for recreational or medical use or both — continues.
As the market for marijuana grows, so does its likely availability to kids and teens. Studies have found that young people can easily buy alcohol, cigarettes and e-cigarettes online. The ability of underage consumers to make these purchases is evidence that the process used by many online vendors to verify the age of site users is not adequate.
The same holds true for online cannabis purchases. When researchers examined age verification processes for online marijuana dispensaries, they found they did not prevent underage consumers from buying marijuana products.
The anonymity the Internet provides is one issue, Ruth Milanaik, corresponding author of a research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics, told TheDoctor. “The Internet can be a wonderful place for children to learn things and connect with others who share their interests, but it can also be a dangerous place.” It can be difficult for parents and other caregivers who are used to marijuana’s former status as an illegal drug to realize how easy it is to buy marijuana online.
None of the dispensaries required proof of age to enter the website. Fifteen of the 80 did not require any proof of age to complete the purchase.
The Northwell Health researchers looked at 80 online marijuana dispensaries in 32 states, though they said they could have missed many because of the limited search terms they used. Of the 22 dispensaries that delivered marijuana products across state lines, 21 delivered to states with different marijuana laws.
Edible products, e-cigarettes and medical cannabis were included in the products offered by online dispensaries. Edibles included gummies or candies, chocolates and nonalcoholic drinks such as lemonade. Of the 75 dispensaries that sold edibles, 50 used colorful packaging that might be attractive to kids and teens, Milanaik explained. “Marijuana edibles look like candy and are packaged like candy.” In an earlier investigation, her team found that children shown both marijuana edibles and regular candy could not tell the difference between them.
It is possible marijuana edibles would arrive in the mail, and parents would not know what they are, she cautioned. “I encourage parents to go online and search for ‘gummy edibles’ or ‘marijuana edibles’ so they know what they can look like.”
None of the dispensaries required a self-reported birthdate or official documents such as government issued IDs or a medical marijuana ID number as proof of age to enter the website.
Fifteen dispensaries did not require any proof of age to complete the purchase.
Half of the dispensaries provided legal information and 34 made disclaimers or warned about the safety of marijuana products, and 53 sites required users to verify their age to complete their purchase or when the marijuana product was delivered.
Modes of payment for online pot purchases also favor underage purchasers. Sixty-seven dispensaries accepted nontraceable forms of payment, such as cash, gift cards and cryptocurrency. Some offered first-time buyer discounts, student discounts or discounts for using cryptocurrency. “It was interesting how many online dispensaries were willing to take things like gift cards,” said Milanaik, a physician in New Hyde Park, New York specializing in developmental and behavioral pediatrics.
“I encourage parents to go online and search for ‘gummy edibles’ or ‘marijuana edibles’ so they know what they can look like.”
Parents should monitor their children’s spending, she advised, and they should carefully review their credit card statements and set up alerts. They should know these online dispensaries might appear as generic purchases on the transaction list. They should also be careful about giving kids too much cash or too many gift cards.
Otherwise, changes may need to come on a legislative level to put stricter verification procedures in place. “So,” as Milanaik put it, “at least it is very daunting to buy marijuana online.”