Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Controlling Underage Access to Legal Cannabis

Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Controlling Underage Access to Legal Cannabis

Article excerpt

CONTENTS  INTRODUCTION I. BACKGROUND II. HARMS AND POLICIES III. OUTLINE IV. STATE AND FEDERAL POLICIES TO LIMIT UNDERAGE USE     A. Other Goals     B. Avoiding the Criminalization of Youth and Adults     C. Eliminating Black Markets and improving Public Safety     D. Introducing Cannabis Public Health Regulation V. METHODS OK UNDERAGE ACCESS AND FORECASTS FOR PARALLEL    MARKETS VI. LESSONS FROM ALCOHOL AND TOBACCO     A. Controlling Store Access     B. Controlling Other Forms of Access     C. Interactions Between Store and Social Sources VII. IMPLICATIONS FOR WASHINGTON'S AND COLORADO'S ABILITY TO      CONTROL CANNABIS SUPPLY TO UNDERAGE USERS      A. Controlling Store Purchase Will Bt Easier Under New Regulations      B. Controlling Cannabis Resale Is Especially Difficult VIII. COMPARISON OF POLICIKS/SCENARIOS CONCLUSION 


Most proposals for legalizing cannabis production and sale ban sales to minors. But such bans are not self-executing. There is at least the risk--if not the overwhelming probability--that legal availability for adults will change price and availability for minors in a way that will increase the prevalence of underage use. This is especially problematic with respect to use by younger adolescents and to heavy use. It might be possible, with vigorous enforcement, to reduce the impact of legalization on use by minors, but the costs and unwanted side effects of such efforts may make them, on balance, inadvisable. The example of alcohol shows that it is possible to make it difficult for minors to buy directly from licensed stores and that doing so reduces alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harms in the target population. But strong efforts to prevent minors from buying cannabis illegally from adults, who in turn buy it from licensed stores, may not be advisable. With minors now accounting for approximately 25 percent of the volume in the cannabis markets, giving strictly illicit producers and vendors a firmer grip on the underage market would undermine the goal of reducing illicit-market harms, including violence, the need for enforcement, and the supply of products of uncertain potency, perhaps containing harmful contaminants. If this is so, then the harms associated with increased juvenile use are not entirely separable from the decision to make cannabis lawfully available to adults.


As states, led by Colorado and Washington and now joined by Alaska and Oregon, begin to legalize commercial production and sale of cannabis, one concern is the risk of increasing use among minors. In the Department of Justice guidance on prosecution of state-legal cannabis-related activity, controlling access to minors is listed among the eight federal priorities.

Most legalization proposals--including those passed in Colorado and Washington--forbid sales to purchasers under twenty-one, matching the rule about alcohol in all fifty states. But making a rule does not ensure that the rule will produce its desired results. Legally produced cannabis will still reach minors, either because minors succeed in purchasing directly from licensed outlets or because adult buyers illegally give or resell what they have legally purchased.

The appropriate policy response is not obvious. If efforts to limit access are inevitably flawed, how vigorously should they be pursued? Should efforts focus only on suppressing store purchase or extend to include "gray markets"--meaning the diversion of product that would be legal for adults? These tensions also exist with alcohol and tobacco, but cannabis is different inasmuch as there already exists a large illicit supply system able and willing to deliver cannabis products to minors. Suppressing gray-market access could inadvertently bolster that purely illicit market, undercutting two prime goals of cannabis legalization: reducing illicit activity and reducing cannabis-related arrests.

This Article identifies three policy alternatives and contrasts their pros and cons. …

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