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California isn’t using minors to bust illegal pot sales as it does with tobacco and alcohol

Some lawmakers think the state can do more to keep marijuana out of the hands of minors.
Marijuana found in an illegal marijuana dispensary raided by the LAPD in Wilmington in May.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Each year, California authorities send minors into thousands of liquor stores and bars to attempt to buy alcohol or cigarettes. The stings catch hundreds of clerks and bartenders selling to underage customers.

But two years after the state began licensing marijuana shops, the agency tasked with enforcing cannabis laws has not conducted similar stings targeting California’s multi-billion-dollar pot industry, the largest in the country.

Proposition 64, which was approved by voters in 2016 to legalize the sale and cultivation of pot, does not require the use of sting operations to enforce the law. But proponents of the initiative promised aggressive action to keep marijuana out of the hands of minors, and experts and critics of legalization say the state is failing to use an important method to hold the industry accountable.

“Decoy stings are a great indicator of how prevalent noncompliance truly is,” said Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey of Palmdale, a retired California Highway Patrol officer. “They also help send a message that there are consequences for not following the law. California should be using every tool in the belt to go after noncompliant operations.”

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Law enforcement routinely uses minors to test whether pot shops sell to underage customers in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, where marijuana also has been legalized.

The operations “are a proven tool for improving compliance,” said Brian E. Smith, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. “The more we do, a better rate of compliance is achieved.”

In the last two years, Washington state enforcement officers have sent minors into pot shops 2,144 times, and retail clerks allegedly sold the drug to the underage buyers in 90 cases. The numbers have declined as word of the sting operations has gotten around , Smith said.

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California officials say they have not mounted routine sting operations because they have their hands full trying to eliminate the large black market of pot sellers, some of whom are peddling contaminated products, including dangerous vaping cartridges.

Instead, officials have focused their attention on responding to complaints received by the Bureau of Cannabis Control.

“The vast majority are illegal retail and delivery complaints,” according to bureau spokesman Alex Traverso. “The priority is working on complaints received in areas where we have licensees who are impacted because illegal operators are cutting into their business.”

Black market sellers — who don’t pay taxes or comply with costly regulations, including testing requirements — threaten the legal market by taking customers away from licensed sellers, officials say. Illicit sellers are also more likely to sell to underage customers.

A recent audit by the United Cannabis Business Assn. found there are about 2,835 unlicensed dispensaries and delivery services operating in California, more than three times the number of licensed businesses.

Despite the need to address black market sellers, some lawmakers say the state can and should do more to keep marijuana out of the hands of minors.

Opponents of Proposition 64 said backers of the initiative have failed to keep their promise to make sure the legalized system does not provide minors greater access to cannabis.

“Teen access, use and harms related to marijuana are skyrocketing,” said Scott Chipman, vice president of Americans Against Legalizing Marijuana. “Minor decoy programs are one of many enforcement strategies that could be useful, especially if there is sufficient media regarding the outcomes.”

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Lawmakers also say the state should be testing licensed pot shops by sending in minors under the supervision of law enforcement. The Legislature approved a bill in 2017 that allows law enforcement to recruit people younger than 21 to help perform sting operations.

Similar operations have been mounted for years to prevent tobacco and alcohol sales to minors.

In 2018, the California Department of Public Health conducted 3,652 undercover inspections using decoy minors that resulted in 361 illegal tobacco sales.

The state also conducted 5,443 sting operations last year in which minors supervised by law enforcement were sent into liquor stores, bars and restaurants, resulting in the arrests of 739 people for illegally selling alcohol to underage buyers.

Violators face penalties including fines and suspended licenses.

Tobacco stings were cited as a possible model for marijuana law enforcement in a 2015 report by a state commission led and appointed by then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“Illegal sales by adults to minors should remain a public safety priority,” said the final report from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, which provided recommendations for Proposition 64.

Citing experts, the panel added: “The tobacco model may provide some insights, where retailers are checked by having people go in to purchase, resulting in penalties if the retailer sells to the minor or if the retailer fails to secure the area immediately around their location.”

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Newsom declined to comment on whether the state should recruit minors for pot shop stings, but as governor he has called for stepped-up enforcement in recent months.

In response to an outbreak of lung-related illness in which vaping cartridges containing THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, have been implicated as a potential cause, Newsom issued an executive order in September calling for state agencies to develop a plan for increased enforcement to reduce illegal vaping by minors. The governor noted that 14.7% of California high school students reported using cannabis last year.

Industry officials have been pressing the state to crack down on the black market, but recognize that there are other issues to contend with, said Lindsay Robinson, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Assn.

“We’re obviously supportive of the industry not selling to minors,” Robinson said. “There are so many enforcement priorities to balance.”

Some backers of Proposition 64, including Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), say they support sending minors to pot shops as part of sting operations.

“As Prop. 64 is now fully implemented, it makes good sense to take proactive steps to ensure our children are properly restricted from cannabis products in licensed stores,” Bonta said.

While cannabis buyers — just like those purchasing alcohol and tobacco — are required to show an ID, Bonta said, “Still, it’s our responsibility to see that our laws are being followed.”


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