Millions of Americans may be finding, buying marijuana products online

SAN DIEGO — Buying marijuana products apparently requires little more than a Google search and the click of a mouse, no matter who you are or where you live. A recent study finds that millions of Americans are seeking out and finding online cannabis retailers, even if they reside in states that haven’t legalized the drug — and even if they aren’t of legal age.

Researchers from several universities monitored Google searches and trends in the United States for queries made between 2005 and 2017, looking for patterns in search trends relating to cannabis products. The team analyzed all searches containing common terms for cannabis, including “marijuana,” “weed,” “cannabis,” and “pot,” combined with the words like “buy,” “shop,” “order,” and others. They eliminated irrelevant search queries such as “buy weed killer.”

Using the most common search queries, the researchers replicated the searches to see what sites showed on the first page of the search engine results. Forty-one percent of all search results for these queries were related to retailers offering mail-order marijuana, usually promising delivery to U.S. customers using a variety of shipping services, including private couriers, the U.S. Postal Service, and UPS.

Three out of every four search queries showed cannabis delivery services on the first page of results.

“Anyone, including teenagers, can search for and buy marijuana from their smartphone regardless of what state they live in,” says lead researcher John W. Ayers, an associate professor at San Diego State University’s Graduate School of Public Health, in a media release.

Overall, marijuana shopping searches increased in the United States by nearly 300% between 2005 and 2017, with the highest number of searches originating from Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada — all states that have legalized recreational marijuana sales in recent years. But online sales of the drug are illegal, even in these states that have legalized or partially legalized it.

“Clearly these regulations are failing,” says co-author Eric Leas, a research fellow at Stanford University.

Researchers suggest that officials work with internet service providers to have these retailers removed from search engines as a means to curb illegal sales. Without such action, the consequences could be dire.

“Children could obtain marijuana online without safeguards to protect them,” says lead author Theodore Caputi, of University College Cork in Ireland. “States that have legalized marijuana might not be able to collect taxes to offset the public health costs of legal marijuana from online retailers, and the instant online availability of marijuana could increase marijuana dependence among all age groups.”

The study was published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine.