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Study investigates online content, advertising practices of marijuana dispensaries in U.S.

A recent study examined online advertising practices among legal recreational and/or medical marijuana dispensaries. From a purposive sample of states with legalized recreational and/or medical marijuana use (n = 10; AZ, CA, CO, IL, MI, MT, NM, NV, OR, and WA) with 10 or more dispensaries each, a random sample of 10 dispensaries per state was selected, for a total of 100 dispensaries. Three of the websites for this sample were excluded from the study and three websites could not be viewed by the research team. The authors examined websites for these dispensaries and coded their content. Content domains included prohibiting individuals under 18 years old from entering the website, targeting and/or easier access for potential consumers (i.e., online ordering and delivery), information on the health effects of marijuana, warnings and side effects, and promotional sales tactics. The authors then used descriptive statistics to describe the dispensaries’ practices in these domains and compared marijuana advertising regulations across the states in the sample. Of the 97 dispensary websites examined, 74% (n = 72) were only licensed to sell medical marijuana, 25% (n = 24) were licensed to sell both recreational and medical marijuana, and 0.01% (n = 1) was only licensed to sell recreational marijuana. Three states in the sample (CO, WA, and OR) had marijuana advertising policies that were relevant to this study (warning labels). Only 25% of dispensary websites (n = 24) required age verification before users could view content. Age verification was more common in two states that limit advertising to individuals under age 21 (CO & WA; p < 0.001) and dispensaries that sold both medical and recreational products (p < 0.001). Of the 94 websites the research team was able to access, 28 (30%) offered online ordering, and 20 (21%) offered delivery services. The latter service was more common among medical-only dispensaries than medical and recreational dispensaries (p = 0.003). Just over half of dispensaries that offered either service indicated the customer would need to verify their identity at the time of pickup/delivery. Two-thirds of websites made health claims about conditions their products could treat, such as pain, stress/relaxation, and appetite, but only 24% of them cited scientific literature to support these claims. Fewer than half (45%) of dispensary websites warned consumers of possible side effects and only 18% warned about contraindications of marijuana use, most commonly driving while impaired. Forty-four percent (n = 41) of dispensaries offered reduced prices or coupons, 31% (n = 29) offered memberships with “perks,” and 16% (n = 15) provided free samples or giveaways. WA was the only state in the sample to specifically forbid these practices. Of the 70 medical-only dispensaries in the sample, 54% (n = 38) advertised using language suggestive of recreational use (e.g., “strong soaring long-lasting high”).

Take away: Of the marijuana dispensary websites included in this sample, 75% did not require age verification ,67% made health claims about medical conditions their products could treat, and fewer than half warned consumers about possible side effects or harms. Additionally, promotions, such as coupons and giveaways, were common.

Cavazos-Rehg, P.A., Krauss, M.J., Cahn, E., et al. (2018). Marijuana promotion online: An investigation of dispensary practices. Prevention Science [published online ahead of print April 9, 2018] doi: 10.1007/s1112

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