Most Marijuana Smokers Aren't Well Educated, Professor Argues

Most Marijuana Smokers Aren't Well Educated, Professor Argues
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Colorado's marijuana laws are under attack in the court system.

Three lawsuits seeking to undue the state's legalization of limited cannabis sales have been filed in recent months.

They include a complaint filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by the states of Nebraska and Kansas, another one from the Washington, D.C.-based Safe Streets Alliance, and a salvo whose plaintiffs include several Colorado sheriffs.

But pot use is also being assaulted on the intellectual front, with one of the most recent arguments against it coming from a Stanford professor who says the idea of the weed-smoking college grad is in large part a myth.

The author in question is Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and Mental Health Policy Director at Stanford University. In a recent Washington Post piece entitled "The Stereotype of the College-Educated Pot Smoker Is Wrong," he notes that data from the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows "'college grads account for only about one-in-six days of use,' the common measurement for national marijuana use."

Professor Keith Humphreys.
Professor Keith Humphreys.

Adds Humphreys: "The remaining 5/6 of today’s marijuana market comprises, from largest to smallest share, high-school graduates, people who attended some college (over 90 percent of whom are no longer enrolled), high school dropouts and teenagers."

As such, Humphrey maintains that marijuana use is similar to tobacco use in the U.S. — "a behavior concentrated in lower social capital groups."

In Humphreys's view, the reality of the situation isn't reflected in a lot of the reporting about cannabis — and he explains his theory about why that's the case in the following excerpt:

Why then is the modal cultural image of pot that of hipster professionals clucking over arrays of $500/ounce sinsemilla blends at upscale dispensaries in San Francisco or Boulder, rather than, say, that of a gas station attendant who smokes low-cost weed several times a day?

The answer may be that journalists, pundits, elected officials and policy analysts, like all human beings, have a tendency to overestimate the representativeness of their own experience. The college-educated chattering classes portray and discuss the world they know, which in fact is a small slice of the U.S. marijuana scene.

A second Humphreys post on this topic, entitled "The Marijuana Analyst Class vs. the Marijuana User Class," offers three possible reasons why college-educated tokers might be deluded about this situation. He refers to them as "orange banders" based on the color designated for them in the following graphic:

A graphic from a Humphreys post tracking marijuana use by education level.
A graphic from a Humphreys post tracking marijuana use by education level.

Here are the examples Humphreys offers:

(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.

This approach to dissuading people from using marijuana differs substantially from the turn-back-the-clock efforts of those behind the lawsuits noted above. The Humphreys model takes cannabis use as a given — but suggests that, for the most part, smart people don't do it.

To read Humphreys's original items, click here and here.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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