One of the biggest questions surrounding marijuana legalization is whether it will make the drug much more affordable and accessible — and therefore increase use.
Well, some early data is coming out of Washington state, which legalized marijuana in 2012 and began sales in 2014. And it looks like, as drug policy experts long suggested, marijuana’s price drops after legalization. Keith Humphreys of Stanford University explained in the Washington Post:
Marijuana price data from Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board was aggregated by Steve Davenport of the Pardee RAND Graduate School and Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. After a transitory rise in the first few months, which Davenport attributes to supply shortages as the system came on line, both retail prices and wholesale prices have plummeted. Davenport said that prices “are now steadily falling at about 2 percent per month. If that trend holds, prices may fall 25 percent each year going forward.”
Experts like Caulkins and Mark Kleiman have long said that there’s no reason to expect a legalized marijuana joint to cost more than, say, a tea bag. Both are, fundamentally, just plants. So once all the barriers put up by prohibition are dismantled and mass production can take root, the price of pot will likely plummet.
There are some things governments can do to keep the price of pot from dropping too much, such as taxes and even price controls. But if taxes in legal outlets are too high, people will just resort to selling under the table, as we see with tobacco in New York. So there’s a ceiling to how much governments can artificially inflate prices — and that ensures that they’ll fall.
The pros and cons of falling marijuana prices
Pot’s price drop comes with risks and benefits.
The big risk: If marijuana is more affordable, chances are more people will try it and use it. While marijuana use is not necessarily bad by itself, more use generally means more people may abuse or overuse the drug — to a degree that might make someone unable to, for example, focus on his studies or job. There are also some risks to even casual use, including accidents, non-deadly overdoses that lead to mental anguish and anxiety, and potentially psychotic episodes.
At the same time, better access and affordability also mean that responsible pot users will be able to obtain the drug with few problems.
Since marijuana consumers will be able to legally access weed, the black market for pot will fall apart over time. This is perhaps the biggest benefit to legalization from a public safety standpoint: It helps eliminate a big source of drug export revenue for drug cartels — about 20 to 30 percent, depending on the study. That means these cartels and other criminal groups that get revenue from marijuana sales will be less able to carry out their violent operations around the world.
Will this eliminate drug-related violence? Probably not. Drug trafficking organizations will likely try to shift to other sources of revenue, such as cocaine and heroin. But since pot is such a huge market, its legalization will likely weaken violent criminal groups and reduce drug-related violence — even if it doesn’t eliminate both.
All of that is to say that, like any drug policy change, marijuana legalization and the price drop it causes will produce pros and cons. Whether those pros outweigh the cons is something we’ll see over time.