Calif. Bill Would Make Underage Sale Violations Sting

As California gears up to open retail cannabis stores next year, one state lawmaker is proposing a stiff penalty for a business caught selling cannabis to underage buyers: the loss of its state license.

Assembly Bill 729, introduced this week by Assembly Member Adam Gray (D-Merced), would establish penalties and practices designed to limit access to nonmedical cannabis for people under 21. While sales to minors are already prohibited under Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use last year, AB 729 would require authorities to suspend an operator’s license after three such offenses within a three-year window.

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The bill would also require licensees to post signage that reads “No Person Under 21 Allowed” and allow for authorized undercover investigations using underage buyers (read: sting operations). It would bar the use of vending machines or other automated devices to sell cannabis; prohibit cannabis businesses near playgrounds, hospitals, and churches; and allow staff to seize fake IDs.

“With the legalization of recreational use marijuana under Proposition 64, it is more important than ever that safeguards are put in place to ensure marijuana stays out of the hands of children,” Gray said in a statement.

The changes would align California with other established adult-use states, such as Washington and Oregon, which have similar rules on the books. In Washington, licensees face an all-out cancellation of their license after three violations within a three-year window. In Oregon, a license suspension can occur after either two or three violations within a two-year window, depending on whether the sales are deemed intentional.

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Preventing underage access to cannabis is a key priority for state regulators in large part due to the Department of Justice’s Cole memo, a nonbinding document that provides a list of enforcement priorities states are expected to follow to avoid federal intervention in medical marijuana programs. On the very top of that list: preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors.

Despite early studies showing that cannabis use among minors has remained steady or even fallen in legal states, one of the biggest concerns about legalization is whether it gives children easier access to cannabis. It came up frequently last election season, as eight states weighed measures to legalize for medical or adult use.

So far, though, despite regulators in legal states making ID checks a top priority, repeat violations appear to be few and far between. “So far this fiscal year we have conducted 569 compliance checks (underage purchase operations) and have had 49 sales,” a Washington State Liquor Control Board spokesman, Mikhail Carpenter, said in an email. “No one has received a third violation.”

In Oregon, regulators are “shifting resources now to compliance and enforcement,” said Mark Pettinger, a spokesman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. The office plans to conduct more “minor decoy operations” to test whether shops sell to people under 21 or those without proper ID. As for whether any licensees have had repeat violations, Pettinger said, “I would say there’s no data at this point.”

A California Assembly subcommittee is scheduled to consider AB 729 on March 18.



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