How tough is it for a 19-year-old to slip past your door? Easier than you might think.
By Bruce Barcott
When the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board sent teams of agents out to enforce the state’s 21-year-old age minimum for marijuana, the board didn’t exactly release them under cover of darkness. In an email sent to the state’s 200-odd pot shop licensees in early May, the board warned retailers what to look for.
“Our underage compliance checks are conducted using 18-21 year old men and women,” the board advised. The agents are not “deceptively mature,” and they won’t present fake IDs. They will “either tell you he/she does not have ID with them, or will present their true state issued ID. This will show the store employee the [agent] is under the legal age.”
Real driver’s licenses
Only verbal deception will be deployed, the Liquor and Cannabis Board warned. If asked, the underage agents will claim to be 21.
In other words: Heads up. Our agents will be knocking on your door. Here’s what to look for.
The board acted like a high school teacher who hands out the answers one week prior to the exam. Hey kids, help me help you pass this test. I cannot make it any easier.
And still they failed!
During the first round of carding tests, four of 22 retail shops sold pot to underage agents. The board announced this dismal result in late May, and then expanded its door checks. By mid-July, 19 of 157 recreational shops had been cited for underage sales. One store — Purple Haze in Everett, Washington — earned the dubious distinction of selling to minors twice.
These failed tests are important. The success of marijuana legalization depends on the public’s confidence in the barriers to underage sales.
As an outspoken legalization proponent, I was angered and embarrassed by the results. A 12% failure rate? Come on. In Washington state, anyone under 21 has a vertical license.
It can’t be that hard to check IDs, can it?
Turns out it is.
“What usually happens is, the door person makes a mistake and then the clerk doesn’t check ID a second time at the counter.” That’s Justin Nordhorn, enforcement chief for the Liquor and Cannabis Control Board. I sat down with him at the board’s office in Olympia recently to ask about the fine art of carding.
The clerk inside relies on the door person, and assumes that the customer has been proofed, Nordhorn said.
The psychology of repetition comes into play, Nordhorn told me. Door security staff read so many IDs during the course of their shift, they can fall prey to complacency. Their eyes glaze over. Sometimes, he said, the nonchalance with which an underage customer hands over his ID can make the doorman assume he’s over 21. Fake it and you might make it.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as bad math,” Nordhorn added. Door staff run the numbers and make mistakes. That’s why supermarkets post those signs at the cash register: “If you were born on or before today’s date in 1994…”
The curious thing is that the violations list isn’t a “Who’s Who” of bad actors. Some of the industry’s gold-standard operations slipped up too.
“The violation came as a complete shock to us,” one high-end store owner told me. “We lost a lot of sleep over it. It came down to human error, paired with a new employee who didn’t follow protocol. We’ve also learned a lot of lessons about how we could have done a better job as leaders.”
Cannabis City owner James Lathrop has stationed a staff member outside his Seattle store since day one.
“I’ve run a bar, so I know the Liquor Control Board tries to trip you up,” he told me. LCB agents are smart, and they learn the tricks of the trade, “so we have to step up our game,” Lathrop added. When an underage LCB agent presented ID at Cannabis City earlier this year, the door checker turned the agent away.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, agents with the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division have checked more than 130 shops and registered nine underage-sale violations. Many stores in Colorado have invested in sophisticated electronic ID scanning devices that verify the customer’s age. During a recent visit to The Farm, a retail cannabis store in Boulder, I had my ID scanned and verified at the door, and again prior to making a purchase. These devices are readily available online (look for the Viage CAV-3500, the Code CR3600, or the IDVisor 310) for $995 to $1,500.
ID scanners are only as reliable as the employees who use them, though. This past summer, Native Roots, a retail store in Aspen, Colorado, was cited for an underage sale despite the owner’s investment in ID scanners and a policy of verifying each customer’s age twice. Native Roots CEO Josh Ginsberg told the Aspen Times he was “appalled and outraged” by the slip-up. The store manager and the employee who made the sale were both fired as a result of the incident.
State laws in Washington and Colorado don’t require stores to station an ID-checker at the door. Some stores employ door staff; others don’t. In stores without door staff, I often find myself looking for a staff person to whom I can show my license. In these early days, it seems like there’s a lot of room for tightening up.
Even a dedicated door staffer isn’t foolproof, though, and budtenders rely on them at their peril. The door person may misread the ID, but when budtenders make the sale, they take the fall. It’s a Class C felony to sell pot to a minor in Washington state. “We’re not arresting and booking right now,” Nordhorn said, “just referring cases to the local prosecutor’s office.”
Note the inclusion of the phrase “right now.”
Nobody’s going to jail yet, but stores are facing hefty fines. A first violation warrants a $3,500 fine and a five-day license suspension. The fine is a pinch, but it’s the five-day shutdown — with zero income — that really hurts. A second violation means a 30-day license suspension. Sell to a minor three times in a three-year period and you’ll lose the license entirely. That’s the barrel Purple Haze is staring down in Everett.
The cost of that third violation? Depends on where you are. Right now the retail pot business is all about location, location, location. A license in a rural town might be worth $20,000 to $50,000. In Seattle, current talk among owners and investors has a prime-location license going for upwards of $1.5 million.
A couple of 19-year-olds can implode that investment overnight. If I were a store owner I’d probably start working the door myself.
Bruce Barcott is the acclaimed author of “Weed the People” and a frequent speaker at cannabis industry events. He has also written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Mother Jones and Sports Illustrated, in addition to a number of books, including The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier and The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird.