The Drug Review: Marijuana Dispensaries Sell to Thousands of Minors Every Year

By Connor Kubeisy, Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions 

For years, advocates for the legalization of marijuana have been telling skeptical voters that dispensaries would not sell their products to minors. Their primary arguments have remained unchanged: legalizing and regulating marijuana is the only way to ensure that it will not end up in the hands of minors. However, self-reported answers from minors now prove this claim demonstrably false. Dispensaries, just like drug dealers, sell to thousands of minors every year. 

When high school users in Arizona were asked how they obtained marijuana, 21.0% of 12th graders, 13.1% of 10th graders, and 8.2% of 8th graders said they “bought it from a dispensary within Arizona,” according to the 2022 Arizona Youth Survey

Similarly, the 2021 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey found that 12% of 12th graders, 6% of 10th graders, and 3% of 8th graders who obtained marijuana in the past month answered, “I bought it from a store.” The 2021 Massachusetts Youth Health Survey found that 4.3% of high school students who used marijuana in the past month answered, “I bought it from a store.” 

When past-month high school users in Colorado were asked to identify the one source where they “usually” obtained marijuana, 4.9% answered, “I bought it at a marijuana store or center,” the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey found. An additional 1.7% answered, “I used a marijuana delivery service.” 

The California Healthy Kids Survey looked at the issue from a slightly different angle, asking students to identify where their peers obtained marijuana. According to the 2017/19 survey, 19.3% of 11th graders, 12.0% of 9th graders, and 5.0% of 7th graders said their peers “buy it at a marijuana dispensary.” The report added, “this suggests that the expanding adult retail market may be influencing current and future use among adolescents.” 

What happens in the dispensary stays in the dispensary. 

The Arizona Youth Survey also indicates that 12th-grade users are just as likely to buy marijuana from dispensaries as they are to buy it from drug dealers. Statewide, in 2022, 21.0% of 12th-grade users said they bought marijuana from an Arizona dispensary, compared to 23.1% that said they “bought it from a drug dealer.” In Pinal, Yavapai, Coconino, and Navajo counties, the first two of which are Arizona’s third- and fourth-largest counties, 12th-grade users were more likely to buy marijuana from a dispensary than from a dealer. 

Moreover, the Arizona Youth Survey found that minors are more likely to buy marijuana from dispensaries than they are to buy alcohol from stores. In Arizona, in 2022, 21.0% of 12th graders, 13.1% of 10th graders, and 8.2% of 8th graders that used marijuana bought it “from a dispensary within Arizona,” whereas 13.0% of 12th graders, 8.5% of 10th graders, and 4.0% of 8th graders that used alcohol “bought it at a store.” 

The 2021 Massachusetts Youth Health Survey found that high school marijuana users were twice as likely to have bought marijuana from a store than were tobacco users to have bought tobacco products from a “vape shop or vapor store,” at 4.3% and 2.0%, respectively. 

The issue of dispensaries selling to minors has been worsening. Between 2018 and 2022, the percentage of 12th-grade users in Arizona that bought marijuana from a dispensary nearly doubled from 11.3% to 21.0%. In Colorado, the percentage of past-month high school users that “usually” bought marijuana from a dispensary increased from 3.3% in 2017 to 4.5% in 2019 and 4.9% in 2021, which prompted the state to warn, “there was a Significant Increase in the percentage that usually bought marijuana at a marijuana store or center.” In Washington, the percentage of 12th-grade users that bought marijuana from a store increased from 7% in 2016 to 12% in 2021. 

To answer the question of whether dispensaries sell to minors, whom better to ask than the minors themselves? Their self-reported answers unequivocally reveal that dispensaries do indeed sell to them. They are admitting it themselves. 

Yet supporters of legalization continue to claim otherwise, contending that the marijuana industry can be trusted not to sell to minors. NORML, a pro-legalization advocacy group, states, “cannabis retailers are not selling to minors and their products are not being diverted to the underage market.” If only that were true. 

Voters who supported Proposition 207 in Arizona were assured the products inside dispensaries would be inaccessible to children. Proposition 207 said, “individuals must show proof of age before purchasing marijuana” and selling to “minors and other individuals under the age of twenty-one remains illegal.” Other states have similar laws. Any non-zero percentage of minors that purchases marijuana from a regulated dispensary undermines a supposed benefit of legalization. 

These findings will prove helpful to localities that are considering whether to prohibit dispensaries from opening within their neighborhoods. Even in states that vote to legalize marijuana, many communities decide to “opt out” and ban sales at the local level. 

It is possible that nearly every marijuana dispensary in states that have legalized marijuana sells to a handful of minors, or a handful of dispensaries each sell to hundreds of minors. The latter would be comparable to the “pill mills” that contributed to the opioid epidemic. 

Some may point out that minors can legally purchase marijuana from a dispensary with a doctor-approved medical marijuana card. Even so, the Arizona Department of Public Health reported there were only 105 medical marijuana patients below the age of 18 in June 2022. Dispensaries were estimated to have sold to more than 5,000 students in 12th, 10th, and 8th grades, after adjusting for usage rates, the percentage of users that bought from dispensaries in Arizona, and school enrollment for the 2021–2022 school year. This does not include students in any other grade, suggesting the actual number of K-12 customers is closer to 10,000. 

Likewise, Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Registry reported only 132 11–17-year-olds in December 2021. Nearly fifteen times as many high school students in Colorado were “usually” buying marijuana from licensed retailers without a medical marijuana prescription in 2021, in addition to those who may have gone once or twice but favored a different source. 

Beyond that, the privileges afforded to individuals, likely including some minors, with medical marijuana cards are being abused. The 2020 Illinois Youth Survey found that 11% of 12th graders, 9% of 10th graders, and 9% of 8th graders who used marijuana in the past year in suburban counties obtained it through “someone else’s medical marijuana prescription.” This increased to 15% of 12th graders in urban counties and 18% of 12th graders in rural counties.  

In Arizona, 18.3% of 12th graders, 13.0% of 10th graders, and 10.2% of 8th graders that used marijuana in 2022 obtained it “from someone with a medical marijuana card.” In 2018, before recreational dispensaries were legalized in Arizona, 29.7% of 12th graders, 21.5% of 10th graders, and 20.4% of 8th graders obtained marijuana “from someone with a medical marijuana card.” 

Of note, health surveys often underestimate these occurrences because some students may not want to report their marijuana use or source. Additionally, the surveys do not account for minors outside of high school; the usage rates of 18–20-year-olds are higher than the usage rates of those 17 or younger. Dispensaries likely sell to thousands of underage college students, as well as those not in college, just as they do to high school students. 

Public health officials in many states appear to be under the assumption that minors are not purchasing marijuana directly from dispensaries or online delivery services. Regarding the sources of tobacco, alcohol, and e-cigarettes, the Illinois Youth Survey allows students to answer that they bought them from a gas station or store. Yet the question about where they obtained marijuana does not have a comparable answer relating to a dispensary or store. The Oregon Healthy Teens Survey asks students where they obtained tobacco and alcohol but does not even have a question that asks them where they obtained marijuana. 

Youth-focused health surveys should include questions and answers to determine how many minors are purchasing marijuana from dispensaries. 

Regulators also appear to assume that dispensaries do not sell to minors. Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division announced in August 2022 that they “conducted over 190 underage compliance checks utilizing underage operatives” and found “a 98% compliance rate.” A 2021 study found that 96.8% of dispensaries in California passed ID checks, and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission found “licensed retailers in central Oregon scored 100 percent on refusal to sell marijuana to a minor” in 2017. However, these investigations only checked whether a dispensary asked a minor for their ID. Of course, minors can get around this by using a fake ID. 

Minors likely purchase marijuana from dispensaries the same way they purchase alcohol and tobacco from licensed retailers: with fake IDs. Some dispensaries may not ask minors for their IDs at all. 

These findings shift the discussion from whether dispensaries illegally sell marijuana to minors––as challenged by NORML and previously left uncontested––to how often they do so. 

Further enforcement is needed to prevent the marijuana industry from illegally selling to minors. The findings above would have demonstrated multiple violations of the now-rescinded Cole Memo; its first goal was focused on “preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors.” 

Given that minors regularly purchase alcohol and tobacco from licensed retailers, it was unrealistic to claim they would not find similar ways to purchase marijuana from dispensaries. If the marijuana industry is to be regulated like the alcohol industry, as some supporters of legalization propose, then it is time for them to concede that the marijuana industry profits from the sale of marijuana to thousands of minors every year. 

Connor Kubeisy is a Policy Analyst with the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions and a Master of Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health