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Maine isn’t doing underage checks on marijuana sales

A salesperson answers questions at Theory Wellness, a cannabis retail store, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in South Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
A salesperson answers questions at Theory Wellness, a cannabis retail store, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in South Portland, Maine.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly 2 1/2 years after adult-use cannabis sales began in Maine, regulators here have cited no stores for selling to minors and are just developing plans for the kinds of random checks regularly conducted at alcohol retailers.

Backers of the 2016 referendum that led to the adult-use market, which opened nearly four years later, billed their effort as one to “regulate marijuana like alcohol.” The regulatory regimes are different. For example, cannabis stores must ask for IDs before customers enter the core area of a store, a policy that is far stricter than the point-of-sale checks on alcohol.

That is likely one major reason why regulators say they have neither gotten complaints nor punished any adult-use stores for selling to people under 21. But lawmakers are putting them under pressure on the issue, and a top state official said his agency hopes to ink a contract to conduct underage checks sometime this year.

“It’s one of our more short-term goals,” Vern Malloch, the deputy director of operations for the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy, said. “It is a priority of ours to get that program up and running.”

The issue gained notice after Malloch told the legislative committee handling alcohol and marijuana policy last week that underage enforcement was not a focus for the agency. In a later interview, he noted the state’s education campaigns on the topic, plus a scientific consensus that cannabis use can harm developing brains in adolescents and teenagers.

Underage compliance checks or decoy operations in which minors are sent into stores to try to make purchases are a major alcohol enforcement across the country. For example, Maine checked nearly 1,700 retailers in 2019, with only 115 of them failing those checks. The results are often made public and generally show compliance is high.

States have been more relaxed on marijuana. Lawmakers in Colorado criticized regulators in 2021 when CBS Denver reported only 80 random checks as opposed to 2,400 for alcohol. Authors of a study from California universities that year found virtually all stores checked IDs, but they found other security risks and recommended states prioritize random checks.

Rep. David Boyer, R-Poland, a freshman lawmaker on the marijuana panel who ran the 2016 legalization campaign, said he and his colleagues were surprised that the agency has not been conducting this kind of compliance work and that it should be a high priority.

“I understand that it seems weird coming from the guy that legalized pot, but part of that campaign was talking about how regulation works,” he said.

The Maine Sheriffs Association already works to coordinate alcohol checks, and it also does similar compliance work on tobacco and medical marijuana. One option could be to extend that work to the adult-use side, although Malloch said his office will look to see if other vendors offer similar services before doing so.

Lawmakers should either put compliance obligations into law or move that work into the agency itself, Boyer said. He was critical of the state’s existing enforcement priorities, saying if underage sales are happening, they are a bigger problem than medical sales to non-patients.

Diversion from the medical market — which includes storefronts and dispersed “caregivers” who sell to small numbers of patients — has been one of the major sources of complaints, and it risks harming those following the rules, Malloch said.

“We don’t have any data that suggests to us, or even anything anecdotal that suggests to us, that it’s happening on a widespread basis,” he said of underage sales. “We do have information about medical sales to non-patients being a problem on a widespread basis.”

Those who have entered the market have many incentives to not sell to minors, including marijuana’s federally illegal status. At Theory Wellness, a Massachusetts-based adult-use company that operates in five states and has four stores in Maine, IDs are checked on the way in and at the point of sales as a safeguard, spokesperson Thomas Winstanley said.

Very few minors ever try to enter. He spoke recently to one employee at another New England store who had only seen three or four. Each one was quickly sniffed out.

“We’re very judicious about it because it’s our operation, and we want to make sure that we are setting proper protocols to prevent any underage sales,” Winstanley said.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.