“Treat marijuana like alcohol” was one of the rallying cries for the legalization of marijuana. One of the ways we do so is by insisting that both recreational drugs are to be sold to only to adults aged 21 years or older.
Five years into recreational marijuana legalization, how have the pot shops fared when it comes to checking teenagers identification?
Far better than the bars, taverns, pubs, nightclubs, stadiums, arenas, festivals, restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, and liquor stores that sell alcohol.
The states that have legalized marijuana have for years monitored how well alcohol retailers comply with identification requirements by carrying out underaged stings. Typically, an underaged buyer (aged 18, 19, or 20) attempts to buy the product while using their actual ID. Retailers that sell to the underaged buyer are then written up and penalized.
These type of stings go by different names, like compliance checks or minor decoy operations, and they are now used in checking up on marijuana retailers, too.
Colorado Weed vs. Whiskey
The State of Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division just released its 2017 annual report. That year, regulators sent minors out 264 times to marijuana retailers throughout the state. In just thirteen attempts were the minors able to successfully purchase marijuana
That’s a Colorado marijuana ID compliance rate of 95.1 percent. Think of it as 1-in-20 times a teen tries to buy legal weed in Colorado, they succeed.
But when it comes to teenagers trying to buy booze at the liquor store, the 2017 Colorado alcohol ID compliance rate was 89 percent. Think of it as 1-in-10 times a teen tries to buy legal vodka in Colorado, they succeed.
Or another way to think of it: it is twice as likely for a teen to be successful buying legal liquor in Colorado than legal marijuana.
Not, “legal alcohol,” however. The story only reports the compliance at liquor stores. It’s likely to be even easier for a Colorado teen to buy legal beer or wine, with the many legal outlets for those drugs.
Washington Buds vs. Bud
On that conjecture, Washington State provides some insight. Their Liquor and Cannabis Board provides fairly detailed data online. I crunched the numbers and found that in the year 2017, LCB conducted 1,271 compliance checks, 78 of which resulted in a sale to an underaged buyer.
That’s a Washington marijuana ID compliance rate of 93.9 percent. Think of it as 1-in-16 times a teen tries to buy legal weed in Washington, they succeed.
The rate for checking ID at the Washington liquor stores in 2017 was 91.1 percent. However, Washington LCB also provides the numbers for all compliance checks for alcohol, including the pubs and stores and restaurants. In 2017, 3,296 checks were conducted and 573 times an underged buyer was served, for a Washington alcohol ID compliance rate of 82.6 percent.. Think of it as 1-in-6 times a teen tries to buy legal booze in Washington, they succeed.
Or another way to think of it: it is almost three times as likely for a teen to be successful buying legal booze in Washington than legal marijuana.
Another troubling fact is that while Washington budtenders are getting better at checking IDs, Washington bartenders are getting worse.
Washington’s alcohol ID compliance rate for 2012 was 86.2 percent. Since then, it has dropped steadily, with 2018 year-to-date figures showing just 81.0 percent compliance.
Meanwhile, Washington’s marijuana ID compliance rate for 2015 was 87.0 percent – retail marijuana started with better compliance than alcohol has ever produced. Since then, it has risen steadily, with 2018 year-to-date figures close to 2017’s rate at 93.6 percent.
Oregon Pot vs. Pinot
A similar tale is unfolding in Oregon. There, the state board only began marijuana checks in December of 2017. That meager dataset yields just 86 compliance checks and 16 sales to underaged buyers.
That’s a rate of 81.4 percent for 2017. But following those dismal opening numbers, year-to-date 2018 shows 95 checks with just 8 sales, for an Oregon marijuana ID compliance rate of 91.6 percent. Think of it as 1-in-12 times a teen tries to buy legal weed in Oregon, they succeed.
The rate for checking ID for booze in Oregon so far this year sits at 86.1 percent. That’s great news, considering that 2017’s alcohol ID rate was 78.6 percent, which had fallen steadily since the peak of 81.3 percent in 2014.
Yet with legal marijuana outperforming legal alcohol in these three states on this one metric, Pacific Northwest regulators still disproportionately engage in minor stings against marijuana retailers.
Washington and Oregon each have a few hundred retail marijuana outlets. Both have thousands of retail alcohol outlets. If we were going to truly “treat marijuana like alcohol,” we should see at least a 10:1 ratio – 10 alcohol compliance checks for every 1 marijuana compliance check.
In Washington, marijuana compliance checks began in May 2015. Since then, there have been 9,409 alcohol checks and 2,668 marijuana checks, for a ratio of 3.5:1.
In Oregon, marijuana compliance checks began in December 2017. Since then, there have been 245 alcohol checks and 181 marijuana checks, for a ratio of 1.35:1
Alaska Ganja vs. Gin
But at least Washington and Oregon are bothering to monitor retailers’ ability to check IDs. The same can’t be said for the fourth legal marijuana state – Alaska.
The Alaska Daily News reported in November that state regulators aren’t even conducting any stings on alcohol and marijuana retailers. The head of the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, Erika McConnell, said there are no federal funds from which to fund the stings.
The state does conduct regular stings on youth tobacco purchases. Joe Darnell, head of the state Tobacco Enforcement and Youth Education program, said his organization stopped cooperation with the alcohol office over a decade ago due the differences in age requirements (Alaskans can buy tobacco at age 19 and there is no age limit for smoking tobacco).
We don’t want teenagers gaining access to marijuana or alcohol. But considering only one of those drugs can kill them and potentially harm those around them, shouldn’t we be putting far more effort at getting those alcohol compliance numbers up to the standard set by marijuana retailers? Forget “treat marijuana like alcohol;” maybe we should “treat alcohol like marijuana.”