Many California Cannabis Dispensaries May Expose Minors to Marketing

By Lisa Rapaport

August 17, 2021

(Reuters Health) - Although nearly all recreational cannabis dispensaries in California check IDs to avoid sales to minors, many don't post signs indicating age restrictions on sales or prevent young people from entering and being exposed to marketing materials, a new study suggests.

Researchers audited 700 recreational cannabis dispensaries in California between June 15 and September 15, 2019. The goal of the audits, which used undercover young adults posing as under-age shoppers, was to determine whether dispensaries complied with state laws that: require signs stating purchasers must be 21 or older; prohibit marketing to younger people with images and colors designed to appeal to youth; and require checking IDs to ensure purchasers are at least 21 years old.

Overall, 96.8% of the dispensaries did check IDs before selling cannabis, only 11.7% checked ID before entry. Just 67.9% had signs indicating that buyers must be at least 21 years old.

Even though dispensaries are not supposed to market to children, 35.3% of those audited had promotional material featuring cartoons, bright colors, or fruity or sweet flavors that might appeal to younger shoppers with a sweet tooth, the study team reports in JAMA Pediatrics.

"Underage youth have the chance to enter recreational marijuana dispensaries without having ID checked, where they could become exposed to abundant cannabis marketing activities inside of the dispensaries," said study coauthor Yuyan Shi of the University of California, San Diego.

There isn't a lot research yet that looks specifically at how advertising exposure influences youth cannabis use, Shi said by email. But a large body of tobacco research shows that marketing heavily influences youth cigarette purchasing decisions, Shi said.

Product promotions were also common at dispensaries, with 62.9% offering discounts for first-time buyers and 48.6% offering daily or weekly discounts.

Some underage shoppers might also get free samples even though they're not old enough to purchase cannabis, the study results suggest. Free samples were available to take away in 21.6% of dispensaries and for in-store consumption at 16.1% of dispensaries.

In addition, 55.8% of dispensaries handed out branded marketing materials, and 38.9% had materials promoting health benefits of cannabis.

The most encouraging thing about the results is that IDs did get checked prior to sales, said Joseph Palamar, an associate professor of Population Health at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, who wasn't involved in the study.

"Yes, it is possible that some underage people may enter not knowing the age limit, but I think what matters most is the ID check before sales - either at the door or directly before purchase," Palamar said by email.

One limitation of the study is that it only looked at dispensaries in California, and results might be different elsewhere. The determination of promotional materials targeting young people is also somewhat subjective, the researchers note.

It is very likely that most underage youth who enter recreational cannabis dispensaries are already interested in buying cannabis before they walk in the door, said Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program at Boston Children's Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

"Still, it is concerning that nationally, the perceived risk of cannabis use among youth, which is highly correlated with use rates, has declined dramatically over the past several years while the number of kids who use daily or near daily has risen," Dr. Levy, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

SOURCE: JAMA Pediatrics, online August 16, 2021.