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Online Sales of Marijuana: An Unrecognized Public Health Dilemma



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Online Sales of Marijuana: An Unrecognized Public
Health Dilemma
Theodore L. Caputi, BS,
Eric C. Leas, PhD, MPH,
Mark Dredze, PhD,
John W. Ayers, PhD, MA
The Internet hosts many unregulated marketplaces
for otherwise regulated products.
If extended to
marijuana (or cannabis),
online markets can
undermine both the U.S. Controlled Substances Act,
which bans marijuana sales, and the regulatory regimes
of states that have legalized marijuana. Consequently,
regardless of the regulatory regime, understanding the
online marijuana market should be a public health
priority. Herein, the scale and growth trajectory of the
online marijuana marketplace was assessed for the rst
time by analyzing aggregate Internet searches and the
links searchers typically nd.
First, the fraction of U.S. Google searches including the terms
marijuana,weed,pot,orcannabis relative to all searches was
described monthly from January 2005 through June 2017 using
data obtained from Google. Searches were also geotagged by state
(omitting Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ver-
mont, West Virginia, and Wyoming because of data access
restrictions). The subset of shopping searches was then moni-
tored by tracking queries that also included buy,shop,andorder
(e.g., buy marijuana) in aggregate. Searches that included killer,
cooking,orclay (e.g., weed killer) were considered unrelated and
excluded from all analyses.
Linear regressions were used to compute pooled means to
compare between time periods and log-linear regressions were
used to compute average growth. Raw search volumes were
estimated based on total Google search volume using comScore
Searches in a Google Chrome browser without cached data were
executed during July 2017 using the 12 combinations of marijuana
and shopping root terms (i.e., buy marijuana). The results would
be indicative of a Google users typical search results. The rst two
pages of links, including duplicates (N¼279, with seven to 12 links
per page), were analyzed (because nearly all searchers click a link
on the rst two pages, with as much as 42% selecting the rst
). Investigators recorded whether each linked site advertised
mail-order marijuana (excluding local deliveries in legal marijuana
states) and its order in the search results. Two authors agreed on all
labels. Analyses were computed using R, version 3.4.1.
Marijuana searches grew 98% (95% CI¼84%, 113%) as a
proportion of all searches from 2005 through the partial
2017 year (Figure 1). The subset of marijuana searches
indicative of shopping grew more rapidly over the same
period (199%, 95% CI¼165%, 243%), with 1.42.4
million marijuana shopping searches during June 2017.
Marijuana shopping searches were highest in Wash-
ington, Oregon, Colorado, and Nevada. The compound-
ing annual growth rate for marijuana shopping searches
since 2005 was signicantly positive (po0.05) in 42 of
the 44 studied locations (all but Alabama and Missis-
sippi), suggesting demand is growing across the nation.
Forty-one percent (95% CI¼35%, 47%) of shopping
search results linked to retailers promising mail-order
marijuana (Table 1). Retailers occupied 50% (95%
CI¼42%, 59%) of the rst page results and for eight
(of 12) searches, the rst link led to a mail-order marijuana
retailer. For some searches (e.g., order marijuana), all of the
rst-page links were marijuana retailers.
Millions of Americans search for marijuana online, and
websites where marijuana can be purchased are often the
top search result.
If only a fraction of the millions of searches and thousands
of retailers are legitimate, this online marketplace poses a
number of potential public health consequences.
could purchase marijuana online. Marijuana could be sold in
states that do not currently allow it. Initiation and marijuana
From the
Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University
College Cork, Cork, Republic of Ireland;
Wharton School, University of
Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
Stanford Prevention Research
Center, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California;
Computer Science,
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland; and
Graduate School of
Public Health, San Diego State University, San Diego, California
Address correspondence to: John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, Graduate School
of Public Health, San Diego State University, 2967 Four Corners Street,
Chula Vista CA 91914. E-mail:
&2018 American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights
Am J Prev Med 2018;](]):]]]]]] 1
dependence could increase.
Products may have inconsis-
tent potency or be contaminated. State and local tax revenue
(which can fund public health programs) could be negatively
Regulations governing online marijuana markets (even
if policy changes favor legalized marijuana) need to be
developed and enforced. Policing online regulations will
require careful coordination across jurisdictions at the
local, state, and federal level with agreements on how to
implement regulations where enforcement regimes con-
ict. Online sales are already prohibited under virtually
every regulatory regimeall sales are illegal under federal
statute and legal marijuana states like Colorado
online salesyet the market appears to be thriving.
Government agencies might work with Internet pro-
viders to purge illicit marijuana retailers from search
engines, similar to how Facebook removes drug-related
Moreover, online payment facilitators could
refuse to support marijuana-related online transactions.
This study was limited in that who is buying/selling
and the quantity of marijuana exchanged cannot be
measured. Further, some searches may be unrelated to
seeking marijuana retailers, and some retailers may be
illegitimate, including scams or law enforcement bait.
The volume of searches and placement of marijuana
retailers in search results is a denitive call for public
health leaders to address the previously unrecognized
dilemma of online marijuana.
This work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of
Mental Health (R21MH103603). Mr. Caputi acknowledges scholar-
ships from the Joseph Wharton Scholars and the George J. Mitchell
Scholarship programs. Dr. Leas acknowledges a training grant from
the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (T32HL007034). No
other nancial disclosures were reported by the authors of this
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2005 2008 2011 2014 2017
All marijuana searches
(per 10 million)
2005 2008 2011 2014 2017
Shopping / all marijuana
searches (%)
Average monthly marijuana shopping
searches (per 10 million) since 2016
Yearly increase in marijuana shopping
searches (per 10 million) since 2005
Figure 1. Internet searches for marijuana.
Note: All Marijuanasearches are dened as searches including one or
more of the following terms: marijuana,pot,cannabis, and/or weed.
Marijuana Shoppingsearches are dened as searches including both
one of the marijuana terms and one of the following shopping searches:
shop,order, and/or buy after omitting ambiguous searches. Panel A
shows All Marijuana searches nationally, as a fraction per 10 million
total Google searches (query fraction). Panel B shows the ratio of
marijuana shopping searches to all marijuana searches nationally.
Panel C shows the average query fraction of Marijuana Shopping
searches between January 2016 and June 2017 by state. Panel D
shows the average annual increase in Marijuana Shopping searches
since 2005, computed through a log-linear least squares regression
model, where less than zero implies a declining trend.
Table 1. Online Mail-Order Marijuana Retailers on Internet
Search Engines, 2017
Search results
page Total
Yes 8 (67) 66 (50) 48 (32) 114 (41)
No 4 (33) 65 (50) 100 (68) 165 (59)
Note: Data were collected by executing searches in July 2017. Cells
show the frequency and percent of links (by column) in the rst two
pages of Google search results that claim to sell mail-order marijuana in
response to 12 searches that contained unique combinations of the
following terms: cannabis,marijuana,pot,orweed with buy,order,or
shop, such as buy cannabis,buy marijuana,buy pot,orbuy weed.
Searches were executed on a new Google browser without cached data.
Two authors agreed on the labels 100% of the time.
Caputi et al / Am J Prev Med 2018;](]):]]]]]]2
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pdf. Accessed September 20, 2017.
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Caputi et al / Am J Prev Med 2018;](]):]]]]]] 3
... In this manuscript, we provide e-commerce surveillance on the availability and promotion of CBD products among vape shops returned in typical internet searches indicative of shopping for vaping products. We utilized an existing method that has been previously used to study the availability of mail-order marijuana delivery using the Google search engine [26]. Specifically, we executed a series of Google searches and then reviewed the content of those searches to identify vape shops and further study their product offerings and marketing. ...
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The exaggerated language used in news articles to describe the benefits of cannabis for conditions without FDA indications may mislead the public and healthcare providers. Thus, this study's objective was to investigate the use of exaggerated language in news articles focused on cannabis and cannabis-derived products. Using a cross-sectional study design, we searched Google News from March 3, 2020, and September 3, 2019 for 11 prespecified superlative terms along with the search terms “cannabis,” “cannabidiol,” “pot,” “marijuana,” “weed,” and “CBD.” Articles were evaluated for these exaggerative terms describing cannabis and cannabis-derived products along with additional news article characteristics. Screening and data extraction occurred in a masked, duplicate fashion. We identified 612 superlative terms in 374 different news articles focused on cannabis and cannabis-derived products from 262 news outlets. Only 26 (of 374, 7.0%) news articles provided clinical data. In total, superlative terms were used to describe cannabis and cannabis-derived products for the treatment of 91 medical conditions, of which only 2 are FDA approved. The most common psychiatric disorder indicated was anxiety disorder appearing in 88 news articles. Superlatives in news articles covering the treatment of psychiatric illnesses with cannabis and cannabis-derived products are common.
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Importance: Laws and attitudes toward marijuana in the United States are becoming more permissive but little is known about whether the prevalence rates of marijuana use and marijuana use disorders have changed in the 21st century. Objective: To present nationally representative information on the past-year prevalence rates of marijuana use, marijuana use disorder, and marijuana use disorder among marijuana users in the US adult general population and whether this has changed between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013. Design, Setting, and Participants: Face-to-face interviews conducted in surveys of 2 nationally representative samples of US adults: the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (data collected April 2001-April 2002; N = 43 093) and the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions–III (data collected April 2012-June 2013; N = 36 309). Data were analyzed March through May 2015. Main Outcomes and Measures: Past-year marijuana use and DSM-IV marijuana use disorder (abuse or dependence). Results: The past-year prevalence of marijuana use was 4.1% (SE, 0.15) in 2001-2002 and 9.5% (SE, 0.27) in 2012-2013, a significant increase (P < .05). Significant increases were also found across demographic subgroups (sex, age, race/ethnicity, education, marital status, income, urban/rural, and region). The past-year prevalence of DSM-IV marijuana use disorder was 1.5% (0.08) in 2001-2002 and 2.9% (SE, 0.13) in 2012-2013 (P < .05). With few exceptions, increases in the prevalence of marijuana use disorder between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013 were also statistically significant (P < .05) across demographic subgroups. However, the prevalence of marijuana use disorder among marijuana users decreased significantly from 2001-2002 (35.6%; SE, 1.37) to 2012-2013 (30.6%; SE, 1.04). Conclusions and Relevance: The prevalence of marijuana use more than doubled between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, and there was a large increase in marijuana use disorders during that time. While not all marijuana users experience problems, nearly 3 of 10 marijuana users manifested a marijuana use disorder in 2012-2013. Because the risk for marijuana use disorder did not increase among users, the increase in prevalence of marijuana use disorder is owing to an increase in prevalence of users in the US adult population. Given changing laws and attitudes toward marijuana, a balanced presentation of the likelihood of adverse consequences of marijuana use to policy makers, professionals, and the public is needed.
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Bans on flavoured cigarettes have been enacted in the USA,1 the EU2 and elsewhere. However, little is known about industry and consumer counter reactions. Djarum, which controls 97% of flavoured cigarette sales in the USA, immediately released ‘cigars’ resembling their banned counterparts and continued to manufacturer flavoured cigarettes.3 This study describes: (A) online consumer interest4 in, and (B) promotion and availability of Djarum cigarettes, and their cigar replacements, before and after the USA banned flavoured cigarettes in 2009.
Policies legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use have been increasing in the U.S. Considering the potential impact of these policies, important knowledge gaps exist, including information about the prevalence of various modes of marijuana use (e.g., smoked in joints, bowls, bongs; consumed in edibles or drinks) and about medical versus recreational use. Accordingly, this study assessed (1) prevalence and correlates of modes of current and ever marijuana use and (2) prevalence of medicinal and recreational marijuana use in U.S. adults. Data came from Summer Styles (n=4,269), a nationally representative consumer panel survey of adults aged ≥18 years, collected in 2014. The survey asked about past 30-day (current) and ever mode of marijuana use and current reason for use (medicinal, recreational, both). Weighted prevalence estimates were computed and correlates were assessed in 2014 using logistic regression. Overall, 7.2% of respondents reported current marijuana use; 34.5% reported ever use. Among current users, 10.5% reported medicinal-only use, 53.4% reported recreational-only use, and 36.1% reported both. Use of bowl or pipe (49.5%) and joint (49.2%) predominated among current marijuana users, with lesser use of bong, water pipe, or hookah (21.7%); blunts (20.3%); edibles/drinks (16.1%); and vaporizers (7.6%); 92.1% of the sample reported combusted-only marijuana use. Combusted modes of marijuana use are most prevalent among U.S. adults, with a majority using marijuana for recreation. In light of changing policies and patterns of use, improved marijuana surveillance is critical for public health planning. Copyright © 2015 American Journal of Preventive Medicine. All rights reserved.
The United States is divided over the legalization of marijuana. Arguments in favor include protection of individual rights, elimination of criminal sentencing for minor offenses, collection of tax revenue, and elimination of the black market. Counterarguments include the possible escalation of use, adverse mental and physical health effects, and potential medical and social costs. Some steps have already been taken to reduce harsh and racially biased sentencing. There is growing support in Congress to eliminate federal mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and 19 states have either decriminalized or eliminated jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Furthermore, 21 . . .
Digital footprints left on search engines, social media, and social networking sites can be aggregated and analyzed as health proxies, yielding anonymous and instantaneous insights. At present, nearly all the existing work has focused on acute diseases. This means the value added from web surveillance is reduced because the effectiveness of even high-profile systems such as Google Flu Trends are inferior to already strong traditional surveillance.1 Conversely, the future of web surveillance is promising in an area where traditional surveillance is largely incomplete: behavioral medicine, a multidisciplinary field incorporating medicine, social science, and public health and focusing on health behaviors and mental health.
Advertising policies. hibited_content/drugs
  • Facebook
Facebook. Advertising policies. hibited_content/drugs. Accessed September 20, 2017.