Cannabis policy: Walmart phenomenon, Whole Foods debate

Jonathan Caulkins once described the debate over cannabis policy as “a Whole Foods discussion of a Walmart situation.” The graphic below illustrates his point: most of the days of use involve people with a high-school education (the purple band), high-school dropouts (the green band) or people under high-school graduation age (the red band); the people in the discussion mostly have college degrees (the orange band) if not more.

Keith Humpheys reflects on the implications of that situation.

Although education is not a perfect proxy for income, the fact that 85% of pot is consumed by people who didn’t graduate college makes clear that marijuana is mainly consumed by people in working-class and poor neighborhoods, not in the kinds of places that economists, attorneys, policy analysts, journalists, physicians and politicians tend to live. A major challenge therefore for the legitimacy of marijuana policy is to ensure that people outside the college educated bubble gain more voice in the ongoing political debate.

When I try to convince people in the debate the Cannabis Use Disorder is a real and rising problem, I am frequently met with incredulity.

That’s not to say that prosperous and well-educated folks don’t use cannabis; lots of them do. But very heavy use (daily or near-daily, sometimes for years on end) of cannabis has about the same demographic profile as tobacco smoking: it skews downscale. And that leads well-educated people to underestimate the risks that cannabis use poses to people less privileged than they are.

Of course the costs of prohibition – most of all, arrest for simple possession – also skew downscale, and skew by ethnicity. The same poor and minority parents who don’t want their kids targeted by cannabis marketing the way they’re now targeted by tobacco (and alcohol) marketing also don’t want them arrested.

We have policy choices available that could eliminate the arrests without allowing the marketing effort – legalization of possession, “grow and give,” restriction of sales to co-ops, not-for-profits, or state-owned retailers like the ABC stores that still control alcohol sales in some states. But the trend is toward alcohol-style legalization, inevitably with alcohol-style outcomes.

[Jonathan and Keith will both be presenting at the upcoming NYU Cannabis Science & Policy Summit.]


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “Cannabis policy: Walmart phenomenon, Whole Foods debate”

  1. It's tough to read the graph, but it appears that nearly half of all use is by persons with at least some college education (blue+orange), and that ratio seems consistent as overall use has increased over time on the x axis. I'd be curious to know if there are different ratios of dependence observed between the heavy users in the top vs. bottom half of that chart. In other words, do heavy users w/ some college or a college degree become dependent at lower rate than heavy users with no college education?

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