“Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors” is the first enforcement priority that is “particularly important to the federal government” according to the August 29 memo from the United States Department of Justice to officials in WA and CO regarding their new marijuana laws. Everyone who has something to say about marijuana policy seems to agree.
What constitutes distribution?
Since, as usual, the devil is in the details, let’s think about what is meant by “distribution”. Is it only defined as preventing minors from buying marijuana in state-licensed stores? Does it include the continued distribution from the illicit market since the Liquor Control Board expects that their licensed stores will only serve a fraction of the current marijuana market? Most importantly, does is include the implementation and enforcement of policies that address how minors currently and will continue to get marijuana: through social distribution?
Since marijuana will be sold only in a limited amount of regulated state-licensed stores (eventually – after the medical and illicit markets are more limited than they are now), similar to how liquor used to be sold in state-run stores, many agree that the majority of youth will not have the ability to buy from pot shops. The state-run liquor stores had very low rates of selling to minors and virtually no theft. Tightly regulated marijuana stores should be no different.
The problem is that the vast majority of minors who drink alcohol or use marijuana do not buy these drugs from stores or dispensaries. They get them socially. Both are “distributed” from adults who can buy the drugs from retailers. Alcohol and marijuana are “distributed” from friends who share it with them. The drugs are “distributed” from home with or without parental awareness. As the ease of access increases for adults, including parents, who are willing to provide/distribute marijuana to kids or keep marijuana in the home, more marijuana will be easily available to minors.
A 2006 study indicates that 88% of minors who use marijuana obtained it from a friend or relative; 59% said they get it for free; and 87% of the transactions occurred indoors, not on the street corner. When it comes to alcohol, only 2% of WA high school sophomores report buying it from a store (2012 Healthy Youth Survey). The top two ways they report getting alcohol is from friends and from home without parental permission. Since the new law makes marijuana available like liquor prior to privatization, marijuana likely will be distributed to minors the same way.
Curbing social distribution
The LCB and their proposed rules do not address these distribution points. Social distribution points need to be dealt with by state and local legislation and local law enforcement.
Here are some examples.
~ To reduce the distribution to youth from parents, a statewide Social Host Law could be enacted by the legislature.
~ To reduce the distribution to youth from adults, local police should institute Shoulder Tap Programs.
~ To reduce the distribution to youth from friends, local police should expand their party patrols*.
These are only a few examples of how the non-commercial distribution of marijuana to minors may be curbed. Of course, these types of policies only work if they are enforced. For several years, Seattle Police have made clear that they do not enforce marijuana laws. And kids increasingly know it.
If public officials are serious about the DOJ memo and the stated intent of I-502, they need to go beyond the LCB rules and current state law. They need to take an honest look at how kids get marijuana (and alcohol), institute policies to reduce social distribution, and put resources behind enforcement. Like preventing underage drinking, preventing underage marijuana use will be an on-going endeavor that won't end with the adoption of I-502 rules.
* Please note that when police cite underage consumers with minor in possession violations, kids are not put in jail. In Seattle, at least, they are not even brought to the police precinct. Minor in possession cases are referred to a county diversion program. No criminal record is established. In fact, the criminal justice system is one important way that youth who need help with drug problems are linked to the help they need.