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Gone to Pot: Lessons on Global Age Verification from the Brewing Weed Scandal

Fergal Parkinson

Promotional graphic for Fergal Parkinson's book "Gone to Pot: Lessons on Global Age Verification in Brewing Weed Scandal," featuring an overlay of a cannabis leaf.

Much of the US has liberalised the laws around marijuana in recent years – to the extent that some form of consumption is now legal in 30 of the 50 states of the union.

But if you think the ‘Just Say No’/’War on Drugs’ conservative school of thought on narcotic enforcement has had its day then I’d suggest you think again: right now, there is a scandal brewing which could see the tide turn back their way.

Because in the rush to capitalise on this new, legal market for medicinal or recreational cannabis, there has been a quite startling lack of attention paid to how it’s dispensed and, crucially, to whom.

That was the central finding of a recent study which investigated standards around age verification for online sales of marijuana.

Researchers from Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York published a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics which detailed how normalised it has become for vendors to employ minimal checks that they are not marketing drugs to underage customers.

They analysed data from 80 online marijuana dispensaries across 32 states and found that 70% merely prompted users to click ‘yes’ to confirm they were of legal age on entry, while only 4% asked for a specific birthdate.

None required verified age documentation or other checks to enter the website. Admittedly the numbers improved significantly at point of sale, but some 19% still did not carry out any formal age verification checks even during the purchasing process.

The study concluded: “It is imperative to require strict age verification procedures prior to cannabis purchases online and to establish stringent surveillance of online marijuana dispensaries to protect youth.”

A state-sanctioned policy that can even unwittingly allow narcotics to be sold to children? It’s enough to make Nancy Reagan turn in her grave.

And you don’t need to be a soothsayer to predict that some of these companies could eventually find themselves facing massive fines and/or costly litigation over all of this.

So, what should they be doing differently to protect themselves against this future?

Well, first and foremost, they should be ensuring that none of their customers are underage – and the optimal way of doing this is by checking against the telephone number they use to register with.

This can detect in an instant if they are who they say they are and if their profile is over or under 18 or 21. Furthermore it can determine if they have history consistent with all of this.

age verification tmt analysis

In short it can verify in a microsecond whether they are a bona fide adult customer. But rather than rely on this most reliable method, those marijuana traders who do make checks are relying on a hotchpotch of different and less workable systems. The single most prevalent [being used by 50% of outlets that employ any form of check] required the uploading of some form of ID. This sounds suitably robust – it’s the sort of thing that impresses judges and civil servants – but it’s really not. Because, as well as being time-consuming and cumbersome, it’s also not especially reliable: people have been forging paper documents for centuries and adding the blurring layer of a copy and upload only makes this easier.

At the other end of the scale, 10% simply asked users what their birthdate was – and took a date that fell within the ‘over 18’ time frame as acceptable proof of age. You don’t need my technical expertise to tell you why this isn’t very reliable.

tmt analysis age verification

The fact is that the only way to reliably guarantee your customers are adults is to use their digital history and profile to verify them. In practice this invariably means the mobile phone number they have almost certainly had since their early teens or even earlier. Any other means is simply too open to abuse to be reliable.

In a contentious and controversial area like marijuana sales, commercial organisations could be storing up a whole world of pain for themselves by failing to realise this.

And there is a lesson here that pertains much more widely than in marijuana sales.

Because in all manner of retail and online transactions – from alcohol, tobacco and vape sales to film viewing, from gaming to gambling – the issue of age and age verification is becoming ever more important and more closely scrutinised.

And any business which fails to proceed sensibly in this field risks gambling with its own future.

Last updated on March 22, 2024

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