Age gates on online pot stores can’t stop teens, and annoy adults. What’s the point?
I look pretty good for my age — which, as far as five cannabis sales sites across Canada are concerned, is 119.
Peicannabiscorp.com, Quebec’s sqdc.ca, Ontario’s ocs.ca, cannabisyukon.org and bccannabisstores.com all let me into their sites last week based on my claim to have been born on Jan. 1, 1900. At shopcannabisnl.com, I had to claim to be born on Jan. 1, 1910, which would make me only 109.
“Usually, people that age don’t function well with computers,” said cannabis lawyer Matt Maurer.
But critics say that age gates can’t stop teens from entering the sites — and question whether there’s a point to stopping them anyway — only serving to annoy adults who have a right to be there.
“If you are of an age where you’re old enough to be interested, but you’re young enough that you’re not supposed to be interested, you obviously know by the time you’re 16 how to punch in a birthday that will get you into the website,” Maurer said.
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“I’m guilty of it as well. Most people are. Will it keep out younger children? For sure, because they can’t figure it out. But teenagers, people who are 16, 17, no, it’s not going to keep them out.”
Ottawa-based cannabis lawyer Trina Fraser questions why it’s worth going to any effort to stop teens from looking at pictures of dried flower and containers of cannabis on the internet, supposing it was even possible.
“Even if you show a picture of what cannabis is, why is that a bad thing? That’s like saying we don’t want kids to see a bottle of wine. God forbid they see what a bottle of wine looks like — they’re going to be induced to drink,” Fraser said.
“In practical terms, it makes no sense to me. It’s not keeping any kids out, and what it is doing is annoying people like me, (who) go to these sites and have to keep entering the damn birthdate over and over again, or a birthdate.”
Fraser set it as an arithmetic problem for her 11-year-old:
“If my 11-year-old said to me: ‘I’d like see what these products are, I’d like to see what these companies do and what they sell,’ I’d say: ‘OK, let’s talk about it,’” she said.
“Nobody puts their real birthdate into these things. There are no consequences for not putting your actual birthdate into them. There’s no legal consequences for being underage and looking at the contents of these websites.”
Age gates on provincial sales sites and licensed producers’ sites are an attempt to comply with the federal Cannabis Act, which says that cannabis can only be promoted “by means of a telecommunication” if the seller “has taken reasonable steps to ensure that the promotion cannot be accessed by a young person.”
Whether age gates accomplish this is an open question.
So simply clicking on a box saying you’re 18 or 19 probably doesn’t meet the requirement, but what about just picking any random date in the 20th century, which is only very slightly more difficult? It’s not clear.
“Is it reasonable at all?” Maurer asked. “I think the intent was to age gate it, and that seemed like a reasonable step. But now we’re seeing it play out in practice, and is it a reasonable step? The frustrating thing is that the government won’t tell you what is and what isn’t. It isn’t clear whether answering yes or no was any different from punching in a year and a date.”
Fraser calls it an “artificial and meaningless distinction.”
The Ontario Cannabis Store age-gates its site as well as attempting to forbid people under 19 from following it on Twitter. (The OCS’s Twitter feed consists entirely of housekeeping announcements about matters like ordering backlogs and new supply agreements with licensed producers.)
“The OCS’s age-gating policy for both OCS.ca and Twitter aligns with the approach taken by most provinces as well as federally licensed cannabis producers,” spokesperson Amanda Winton wrote in an email.
“In accordance with federal and provincial law, the OCS developed an age verification process to restrict youth access to OCS.ca and prevent youth from viewing or receiving cannabis products or cannabis accessories.”
Fraser doesn’t buy it.
“I don’t think there’s much, if anything, on these sites — if they’re currently compliant — that I would be concerned about my kids seeing anyway,” she said. “For me, to pretend like we’re keeping kids out by putting complicated age gates up, nobody actually believes that that’s effective.”
Nova Scotia’s approach
Nova Scotia uses a different system, which, in some ways, seems more rational. People there who want to buy cannabis online go to a liquor store in person, establish that they are an adult and are given a PIN number to access the site.
“Certainly, the Nova Scotia model is much more reasonable in terms of prevention,” Maurer said. “That seems to be the most effective way of making sure that young persons aren’t accessing the website.”
It doesn’t seem to have affected online cannabis sales: about five per cent of the pot sold in Nova Scotia is sold online, almost exactly the same proportion as next-door neighbour New Brunswick, where online cannabis shoppers click a simple box saying they’re 19.
Double standard for alcohol
It’s not lost on the cannabis community that kids of any age can enter liquor stores and check out liquor store websites, whose marketing approach is cheerfully promotional, and that root beer vodka coolers that could easily be mistaken for cans of pop are sold.
“It’s a double standard in every respect,” Fraser said.
“It doesn’t make any sense. I go into the LCBO and see a vodka drink that looks exactly like a root beer that I could buy at the corner store. It’s exactly the same — the logo, the name, everything. I could easily, if I’m not paying attention, mistake that for a pop. How is that permissible? It doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.”
“We’re over-regulating cannabis and under-regulating alcohol,” she argued. “If you’re looking at the potential for harm, alcohol should be regulated more strictly than cannabis.”
Maurer is more tolerant of the contradiction.
“When you hear complaints, you hear: ‘Alcohol isn’t treated like this, and there’s a double standard,’” he said.
“That’s a fair point, but what I’ve also heard is: ‘It doesn’t mean we got alcohol right, and maybe if we could go back in time, we wouldn’t do things the way that we currently have with alcohol, and unwinding it is more difficult, so if we take the learnings that we took from alcohol and apply it to cannabis, we’re going to end up with a double standard and a more restrictive set of rules.”
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