As a still-young industry, many are all too familiar with the stringent compliance protocols attached to cannabis today. Cannabis retailers across the U.S. must comply with an array of rules carried down by state cannabis officials, in part to ensure they check ID and that products stay out of the hands of underage consumers.

Data published in the journal Addictive Behaviors sheds new light on just how well dispensaries follow these regulations, ultimately finding that adult-use retailers across five U.S. cities were in strict compliance with laws requiring patrons to show identification and proof of legal age.

“As cannabis retail expands in the U.S., its surveillance is crucial to inform regulations and protect consumers. This study addresses this need by conducting point-of-sale audits examining regulatory compliance (e.g., age verification, signage), advertising/promotional strategies, products, and pricing…” authors state in the abstract.

Cannabis Compliance: ID Verification, Warning Signage and Appealing to Minors

A team of investigators affiliated with George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health conducted point-of-sale audits of 150 randomly selected recreational dispensaries in Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland, and Seattle, 30 for each city. Investigators conducted the audits in summer 2022.

Age verification rates were high, above 90%, and the majority of retailers had signage indicating restricted access (87.3%), onsite consumption (73.3%), and distribution to minors (53.3%). Retailers were also likely to post warnings regarding cannabis use during pregnancy and while nursing (72%), followed by health risks (38%), impacts on children/youth (18.7%) and DUI (14%).

Conversely, 28.7% posted health claims about cannabis, 20.7% posted “youth-oriented signage” and 18% had products with “youth-oriented packaging.”

Other Signage, Marketing and Product Findings

The study also explored other information dispensaries generally posted and marketed in store. Price promotions were highly prevalent, especially price specials (75.3%), followed by daily, weekly, and monthly specials (66.7%) and signage regarding membership programs (39.3%). 

One-fourth of the stores had signs and promotions advertising curbside delivery/pickup (28%) and/or online ordering (25.3%). Social media and website promotions were noted in 64.7% of audited stores. 

Finally, investigators took a closer look at the product selection offered by retailers. The most cannabis products were most often e-liquids (38%) or oils (24.7%), with edibles appearing most frequently (53%) as the least potent product.

The most expensive product was often bud and flower (58%); the least expensive was joints (54%). More than 81% of retailers sold vaporizers, rolling papers and glass, like hookahs, water pipes and bongs; 22.6% sold CBD products.

Results Echo Past Compliance Data

“Marketing strategies differed across cities, reflecting differences in state-specific regulations and/or gaps in compliance/enforcement,” investigators wrote. “Findings underscore the need for ongoing cannabis retail surveillance to inform future regulatory and enforcement efforts.”

NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano commented on the study’s results, initially emphasizing, “Regulation works.”

“Illicit marijuana providers don’t ask for or check for ID, but licensed businesses most certainly do,” Armentano wrote in a NORML blog post. “States’ real-world experience with marijuana legalization affirms that these policies can be implemented in a way that provides regulated access for adults while simultaneously limiting youth access and misuse.”

The age verification numbers are consistent with previous research. Specifically, one 2022 study focusing on the California market found that dispensaries were highly compliant with ID policy, 100% total compliance with ID policy among the randomly selected retailers.

“It appears that licensed California recreational marijuana outlets avoid selling marijuana to underage customers. One reason could be a strong incentive for recreational marijuana outlet owners and managers to avoid being shut down for an illegal activity,” authors wrote.

That study also suggested that further studies and cannabis enforcement agencies should investigate if underage patrons attempt to enter cannabis retailers with fake IDs and whether underage patrons are obtaining cannabis from illicit dispensaries or other sources.

A bulletin issued by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division in August 2022 also found that, of more than 190 compliance checks utilizing underage operatives, four businesses in the state made a sale to those individuals, demonstrating a 98% compliance rate.

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