Post-legalization pot potency: hard to forecast

Would a post-legalization market be all sinsemilla? Maybe. Maybe not.

Keith Humphreys has a thoughtful post below on the likely distribution of marijuana potencies post-legalization. His argument goes as follows:

1. Right now, more prosperous people tend to buy more expensive and potent pot, while less prosperous people tend to buy cheaper, weaker stuff.

2. Post-legalization, pot of all kinds would be dirt-cheap.

3. Therefore, almost everyone would wind up smoking hi-test rather than regular grade.

That makes sense. But I’d be cautious. The actual distribution of potencies would depend both on unknowns about consumer tastes, market structure, and branding/marketing strategies and on policy details yet to be specified.

* The range of potencies offered in a licit market could be restricted by law. Insofar as licit pot competes with illicit pot, and lower-potency licit pot becomes more available, you’d expect a decrease in the consumption of higher-potency illicit pot. The market for extra-potent stuff might be so thin as to make it effectively unavailable to most consumers.

* Even if high-potency product were legal, it could be heavily taxed, as whiskey is heavily taxed compared to beer.

* In the current illicit market, “quality” and “potency” are conflated in consumers’ minds. Post-legalization, potency will be unconstrained; in a mechanized farming/manufacturing operation like today’s tobacco industry, THC could be extracted from the vegetable matter and used to “fortify” pot to any desired potency. That may push consumers’ ideas of “quality” away from potency and toward other factors.

* Unlike alcoholic beverages, which mostly contain only a single psychoactive, cannabis contains a mix. Some consumers will want lower-THC, higher-CBD product.

* Once the product is clearly labeled with its chemical content, potency matters less. Today, high-potency pot tends to get users more stoned because they don’t completely adjust how much they smoke for the strength of the material. Taking one puff of 15%-THC pot isn’t quite the same as taking three puffs of 5%-THC pot – the speed of onset matters – but it’s a reasonable approximation. And the whole inhaling-deeply-and-holding-your-breath-to-extract-all-the-THC ritual will probably disappear once consumers don’t have to worry about the cost.

Alcohol remains our one experiment with legalization of an intoxicant. Two-thirds of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. is taken in the form of beer rather than higher-potency forms.

As is so often the case, the answer here is “Hard to say; it depends.”


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:

14 thoughts on “Post-legalization pot potency: hard to forecast”

  1. Agree 100%. If people had choices and knew they could always easily get more, taste and preferences would develop. We can’t really predict what they will be.

    My guess is the vast majority of smokers would prefer perhaps a more potent dosage than the cheapest stuff, but not nearly as strong as some of the more potent varieties out there. Just like beer or wine, it’s much easier to pace yourself than it is is with martinis. If you’d like to feel more, smoke more. If you’re good, you’re good.

  2. Great post Mark.

    I think one example that comes to mind of “high potency” alochol is Everclear, which is like 90% alcohol.

    The legality of Everclear varies from state to state. For example, in the Midwest, it is legal in Missouri and Indiana, but illegal in Ohio and Michigan.

    So perhaps the marajuana version of Everclear could be banned.

    Also, it is not as if everyone is running to Indiana or Missouri to obtain Everclear. Yeah, some college students cross state lines to get it, but there is not a mass illegal market for the liquor and it is not obliterating the alcohol markets of beer, wine, and lesser spirits.

    1. I use Everclear to make homemade limoncello. One bottle lasts 5 years though.

      However, my other diversions are preferentially way down the potency scale. I refuse if the yield/dose is too um, high.

    1. You mean in the circles you know about.
      Washington is still bigger than any thousand folks you know.

  3. And the whole inhaling-deeply-and-holding-your-breath-to-extract-all-the-THC ritual will probably disappear once consumers don’t have to worry about the cost.

    I hadn’t considered that, but depending on how far the price drops, you’re probably right (once us old hippies die off, anyway). Silly as it sounds, I think I’d miss it.

    Reminds me of an old joke:

    What’s the stoner’s most oft-used word?

    I dunno, what?



    Yeah! (takes an imaginary toke, holds his breath, and pretends to pass a joint) ‘ere!

  4. Another piece to consider is how market oriented marijuana production and distribution will be. For example after prohibition there were restrictive state and federal laws that caused the industry to be consolidated into a few large players for many decades. Federal tax laws were loosened under Carter that allowed some microbrews to develop. Later states began to do the same. It took longer for hard liquor regulations to relax enough for smaller distillers to get into the game. On the distribution side of things many states directly or indirectly control the distribution and sale of intoxicants. Michigan directly sets the price. Other states have state run liquor stores (Ohio used to, not sure if it still does).

    Would legal cannabis find itself in the same highly regulated market? Or was that a product of its time (the highly regulated 30s)?

  5. I don’t smoke myself, but the most common complaint I hear from other middle-aged off-and-on smokers is that it’s too strong these days: they used to be able to get high, and now one puff and they’re halfway to catatonic. I think it’s very likely that there’d be a market for low-potency pot even if legal.

  6. I agree with the last commenter. As a 60 year old psychiatrist taking substance use histories from patients in their 20’s and 30’s, I hear a lot of “I tried marijuana and it made me paranoid and really anxious.” In my college years, when everyone smoked, I never knew anyone who reacted to marijuana this way, though some people did to hashish.

  7. i think most cannabis users find a level of “High” that they like to maintain if the cannabis is stronger you use less, its more about finding your own balance something the present black market does not allow. not everyone who uses cannabis wants to be blasted off their heads all the time in the same way as not every one who like a beer wants to be plastered drunk all the time

  8. Even the ‘legal’ stuff (Sativex) is left to the user to self titrate i.e. find their optimum dose by trial and error. Most people have what’s called common sense and would do the same I’m sure.

  9. While prohibited dealers only sell the strongest stinkiest strains, not giving the toker a chance to get those high CBD strains. Some people need cannabis but they dont need to get 15 – 20%THC high, but while prohibited, cannabis users get what they are given. I think once legally regulated there will be a big market for high CBD Low THC strains. Its about choice, hundreds of strains all with different cannabinoid profiles. As long as there is THC/CBD ratio/percentage information available then people know what they are smoking.

  10. Id gladly buy something half the potency and half the price but still with the same quality in taste and smoke if I could get it. I think alot more people would than we’d think. Also some people like to smoke alot of it, they would be looking for 2-5% THC content rather than 10-20%, but of comparable quality. Rather than having to choose between seedy bush and hydroponic skunk.

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