A new study, led by San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health associate research professor John W. Ayers, demonstrates how easy it is for Americans to purchase marijuana online. Titled, "Online Sales of Marijuana: An Unrecognized Public Health Dilemma," and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the study explores the online marketplace for mail-order cannabis in the U.S.
Theodore L. Caputi, Eric C. Leas, Mark Dredze, and John W. Ayers analyzed Google searches in the United States between 2005 and 2017. The researchers paired the terms "marijuana," "weed," "pot," and "cannabis" with "buy," "shop," and "order." Similar, but irrelevant search queries (e.g., "buy weed killer"), were omitted.
Searches were also geotagged by state, and the study analyzed search activity in almost every American State. Due to data restrictions; Vermont, Montana, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and West Virginia were excluded. Study co-author, Mark Dredze, told Science Daily the following.
"By studying anonymized, aggregate internet searches and search results, we were able to directly observe the online marijuana marketplace."
From 2005 to 2017, marijuana shopping searches in the United States nearly tripled, peaking at 2.4 million searches in June 2017. The search volume was highest in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada.
The overall annual growth-rate for marijuana shopping searches, researchers found, was significantly positive since 2005, in all studied states, bar Alabama and Mississippi. This, authors assert, suggests a growing demand across the nation.
Furthermore, forty-one percent of all monitored search results linked to retailers selling marijuana. Retailers occupied 50 percent of the first page of Google search results. However, for some searches, all links on the first page of Google were pointing to online marijuana retailers.
"Millions of Americans search for marijuana online, and websites where marijuana can be purchased are often the top search result," researchers concluded, adding that "marijuana can be sold in states that do not currently allow it."
This, they claim, poses some potential public health threats. Some retailers might sell contaminated products. Moreover, state and local tax revenue - some of which could be used to fund public health programs - could be negatively impacted.
"Anyone, including teenagers, can search for and buy marijuana from their smartphone regardless of what state they live in," lead author John W. Ayers said. Although some states have legalized, or at least partially legalized marijuana, "clearly these regulations are failing," asserted coauthor Eric Leas.
Regulations need to be further developed and better enforced, researchers claim, "even if policy changes favor legalized marijuana." Online sales are already prohibited, yet the market seems to be thriving, so the authors suggest that government agencies could perhaps work with internet service providers to remove illicit marijuana retailers from search engine results. Likewise, payment facilitators could refuse to support these transactions.