If you’ve ever visited a cannabis website of any kind, you’ve passed through an ‘age gate.’ Also known as an age verification system, an age gate is an electronic protection measure to restrict access to those not of legal age. It usually consists of a screen that pops up when you visit a cannabis website that requires you to attest that you are at least 21 years old. In this day and age of technology (and hacks to get around it) what is the point of an age gate? Anyone can lie about their age. And just because someone can get into a website to look at cannabis products doesn’t mean they can buy them, right? So why are they still a thing? “It’s a good faith effort,” said Caitlyn Walsh, manager at Spokane Green Leaf in north Spokane. According to Walsh, age verification systems demonstrate to the government that a company took steps to prevent minors from accessing their products. “It’s just to stay compliant with Washington state rules about not selling to people under the age of 21,” she said. Technically, there is nothing in Washington state or federal law that says age gates must keep i502 businesses in compliance. None of the businesses contacted for this article, or additional research, produced rules that specifically mandate age verification systems. The companies contacted all said they include them simply to check off a box showing they are adhering to one of the priorities in the Cole Memorandum, a 2013 memo from then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole that outlines marijuana enforcement under the Controlled Substances Act. One of the priorities is preventing distribution of marijuana to minors. Age gates became the preferred way to demonstrate that websites aren’t open to underage visitors. It’s a low cost, low effort way to – for lack of a better term – cover one’s assets. Most businesses contacted said they don’t even design their own age identification system or provide input into what they should look like; they just tell their needs to the company they contract with for site design their needs and the company decides which ‘gate’ to use. As a result, there are a variety of styles of age verification systems. Most cannabis businesses have a screen that requires you to input your birthdate, either manually or through a drop down option where you can scroll to your date, month and year. Others, like Spokane Green Leaf, asks “Are you over 21?” and you can select “yes” or “no.” Locals Canna House in Spokane Valley has an age verification system that looks more like a pop-up ad. After opening the homepage, a screen pops up that tells visitors “You must be at least 21 to continue viewing this site.” And that’s it. No place to enter or verify your age. Just a big X you click to close the pop-up screen and get to the rest of the website. Apex Cannabis shops in Newman Lake, downtown Spokane, and Moses Lake have a completely different style age gate; a slider bar that you move right and left until you reach your age. But does anyone use their real age with an age gate? The common perception is that most people just spin the wheel until it reaches a date that makes them over 21. And it’s hard to prove otherwise. Businesses contacted for this article say they don’t attempt to gather demographic data from age verification systems and there is no way to monitor if people are submitting actual ages. There is also no penalty for not entering a correct age, so no one is pretending that it doesn’t happen. “We definitely don’t want to have those under the legal age on our site, but we realize the internet can be manipulated,” said Walsh. While it is a minor inconvenience, you occasionally hear someone complain that they have to jump through the age gate hoop every time they pre-order marijuana products, or browse to see what is available. Even repeat customers have to navigate the age gate every visit. Walsh says concerns about alienating customers with age verification system are a non-issue, for the most part. “I spend a lot of time looking at other websites, so sometimes I get irritated at having to do it over and over again but I’ve never heard (complaints) from anyone else.” If you lived in places where an alternative system is used, like Nova Scotia, you might be more irritated: Online age verification systems aren’t used there. Instead, those who wish to buy cannabis online must go to a liquor store and show identification to establish legal age before getting a PIN number they can use to access cannabis websites in the future. Meanwhile, in Washington State, no in-person appearance is required in advance of ordering cannabis online, but you are required to show your ID when picking up an order in store.
Tracy Damon is a Spokane-based freelancer who has been writing professionally for 20 years. She has been covering i502 issues since recreational cannabis became legal in Washington.