This month's issue of Journal of Drug Issues published the findings of a vast weed study that focuses on a relatively unexplored area of research: not how many more people smoked weed over the past decade, but how much weed those weed smokers smoke and how that fits into their lives and budgets.
Study authors Steven Davenport and Jonathan Caulkins looked at data gathered between 2002 and 2013, and their paper, "Evolution of the United States Marijuana Market in the Decade of Liberalization Before Full Legalization," interprets the data in many ways, producing an interesting snapshot of the median weed user. But a couple of more unsettling conclusions leap out: The study indicates that two-thirds of weed is consumed by people who smoke every day, and that 15 percent of all weed is consumed by poor people who are blowing upward of a quarter of their incomes getting high.
And while that may sound a bit similar to the no-brainer results of a well-circulated 2014 finding saying alcoholics in the US consume the lion's share of booze, Davenport and Caulkins also note that daily weed use appears to have skyrocketed very recently. According to the data the authors used for comparison, a random person in the 1990s who had smoked in the past month only had a one in nine chance of being a daily or near-daily user. That means such habitual use has tripled.
We got in touch with co-author Steven Davenport, a PhD candidate at Pardee RAND Graduate School who also works as an assistant policy analyst the the RAND Corporation. He explained what these numbers mean and how we should think about them. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Let's say someone is a big fan of weed. What should their takeaway be after looking at these numbers?
Steven Davenport: If people use marijuana occasionally—and they have friends who do the same—they assume that most people who are using cannabis are like them. In the media, I think people tend to underestimate the amount of really frequent use that's going on.
How much more frequent use is going on?
[The] number of near-daily users has increased sevenfold from 1992, so for every one in 1992, there's now seven in 2013. My co-author has described this as kind of switching cannabis from being treated like alcohol, to more like cigarettes. Among users who have used it in the past month, one in three are daily, or near-daily users. They've self reported at least 21 days of use in the past 30 days.
The cigarette comparison seems strange. For instance, I'm sure some people are able to take weed breaks from work, but that still seems like it'd be really rare. Am I missing something?
The resemblance to cigarettes [comes from] using it almost every day of the month. And also in the demographic profile. Alcohol is surprisingly upscale. I think that's from a lot of people in Appalachia who are poor and abstain from alcohol. But if you do a [cross-tabulation report] on any economic or educational split, marijuana is pretty much just like cigarettes. Someone who is using daily or near-daily is probably spending about the same amount of money on an annual basis as a pack-a-day smoker: about $2,200.
And your numbers suggest they probably can't afford $2,200 a year?
If you look at the profile, they lag in economic and educational indicators. That's a especially true—once again—if you start looking at proportions of the market. Half of marijuana use days are by people who never attended college.
What does that mean for the weed business?
One consequence from this increasing concentration of use among a minority of users is that they're really dominating the market, even though they're only a small proportion of users. So this one-third of daily users accounts for two-thirds of daily use days and three-quarters of spending.
Setting aside these everyday users, what can you say about the average user—however you define "average"?
It's kinda tough because there really is no average user. Daily or near-daily users are now one-third of active users. I would imagine if you look for the median, they'd be using about maybe ten to 15 days month. That would just be my guess. So that person might not have a problem, but it's pretty clear that the average pot smoker—however you want to define "average"—isn't somebody who's using on weekends exclusively. Use is just kinda more frequent than that.
How much do they spend?
I have a statistic for expenditures: About $100 a month is what we computed to be the amount the median past-month user spends on marijuana.
Is there anything unique about frequent weed users? Like are they usually younger, or students, or something like that?
You see increased use across the board, even with people who are 50 or older, something like 1 percent to 3 percent, which is kinda big. Even among older people, those who are using are beginning to use more frequently. The trend is increasing, and intensity of use is really consistent across every demographic. And it's really a bigger trend than increasing prevalence.
Growing weed can be tricky, but I've heard of people saving money that way. Did you see that happening?
We do have some statistics about growing cannabis. Growing is definitely on the rise. One of the survey items asked people "when you last obtained marijuana, how did you get it?" [and] growing used to be pretty minuscule at about one percent. In 2013, it's around 3 percent. There's an increase in growing among people with medical recommendations. Among users who report a medical recommendation, 7 percent of them usually acquired by growing, versus 2 percent of those who did not.
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