The Marijuana Analyst Class vs. the Marijuana User Class

Pot Use by Education

The above chart was created by Carnegie Mellon University Professor Jonathan Caulkins using data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. If you want to read Jon’s intriguing analysis of how the concentration of marijuana use among less educated Americans affects the marijuana market, you can check out one of my recent Washington Post Wonkblog pieces. Here, I want to reflect on a different aspect of these data, namely the orange band in the chart. These college-educated people account for only 1/6 of the marijuana market, but they account for almost all of “marijuana analyst class”.

Who is in the orange bar? Obviously I am, along with every other university professor and think tank scholar who analyzes drug policy. So too are almost all state and federal elected officials and political appointees. Throw in as well almost all journalists who write about or do television stories about pot. Throw in as well almost all health care professionals. Marijuana legalization activists are also heavily drawn from the orange bar, as are DEA and FBI agents. People who consume drug policy analysis on the Internet are disproportionately orange bar members too. What this means practically is that the public debate about marijuana is shaped almost exclusively by people who don’t live and work in the world where 5/6 of the drug is actually consumed. Orange banders can compensate for their insular position somewhat through research (e.g., I spend a lot of time in correctional facilities), but even then they still face significant risk of being out of touch with realities on the ground. Three examples come to mind.

(1) The reality of marijuana possession arrests: The risk of being arrested for marijuana possession in the U.S. is in general extremely low. But when it happens, it is rarely orange banders who get the cuffs slapped on them. Outside the orange band, arrestees usually can’t afford good lawyers who can get marijuana charges reduced or dropped, i.e., the “same” arrest hurts more as one moves down the income scale.

(2) Ill effects of marijuana use: “I smoke marijuana once a week and I am a top software engineer — marijuana is harmless”. I hear this kind of orange band talk all the time. An occasional marijuana user who has an education, a good job and lots of social capital is indeed likely to be fine, but outside the orange band life can be quite different. If you are teenager in a low-income neighborhood on the cusp between just managing to graduate high school or becoming a drop out, the memory, learning and concentration impairments from a daily marijuana habit (a more common use pattern outside the orange band) can profoundly change your life for the worse.

(3) The economics of marijuana: It’s remarkable that when marijuana prices are debated, the default assumption is that the high-priced sinsemilla favored by orange banders is the benchmark. But 80% of the marijuana market is the lower-cost, commercial grade marijuana (mostly from Mexico) popular outside the orange band. Because an ounce of the former can be priced the same as a half pound of the latter, assuming that the orange band product is the norm can lead to wildly overstated estimates of the price of marijuana and the overall income of the marijuana industry.

p.s. Chart notes for policy wonks/data nerds. The time series begins in 2002 because NSDUH was redesigned in 2001, making comparison to prior years inaccurate. Individuals with “some college” should not be equated with “university students”. Only 7% of this group is currently enrolled in a course, and even that 7% includes people in trade schools and community colleges. Finally, these NSDUH data do not include “blunts”, which would add about 6% more total use days each year but only minimally affect the distribution of marijuana use by educational level.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.