Most illicit drug users are occasional marijuana smokers:
About 75% of the people who use any illicit drug, use only marijuana. And most of those people only use relatively small amounts of marijuana. When people talk about “drug users,” what they have in their mind is often a junkie nodding off on a street corner or a hopped-up crack head. But most drug users, meaning illicit drug users, are occasional marijuana smokers.
If you took marijuana out of the equation, you would be left with relatively few — several million — illicit drug users. You’d still be left with more than 85% of the total revenues of the illicit drug business. So the vast number of marijuana users don’t account for much of the total dollars spent.
The same thing is true if you look among marijuana users. The couple of million who stay stoned all day, every day, account for the vast bulk of the total marijuana consumed, and thus the total revenues of the illicit marijuana industry. That’s typical. The money in any drug, including alcohol, is in the addicts, not the casual users. There was a big fuss during the 80s about how much casual middle-class drug use there was and how respectable folks were supporting the markets. It’s certainly true that most people who are illicit drug users are employed, stable respectable citizens. But it doesn’t follow that if we could get the employed, stable respectable citizens to stop using illicit drugs, the problem would mostly go away.
That turns out not to be true; the problem is concentrated in a relatively small hard core. Four-fifths of the cocaine consumed in this country is consumed by about 2.5 million very heavy cocaine users. All the rest of the cocaine users, the bulk of the survey reported cocaine use, accounts for very little quantity. We use about $30 billion a year worth of cocaine in this country. If there were 10 million people, and the survey says there aren’t that many anymore, but if there were 10 million people, each of them using $500 worth of cocaine a year — that’s a couple of rocks a week — that would only be $5 billion worth. The other $25 billion has to go to people who use a lot of cocaine.
If we took marijuana out of the equation, the number of illicit drug users would collapse dramatically. The drug problem wouldn’t change much at all, because the drug problem we really have isn’t much about marijuana.
Marijuana generates more arrests than any other illicit drug. Much of that doesn’t have anything to do with law enforcement specifically targeting drug infractions. Much of that is literally somebody’s driving a little funny, gets pulled over and the cop smells the marijuana smoke or sees the baggie on the seat. There are relatively few police officers out there who are spending their time trying to catch people using marijuana. More in suburban and rural areas obviously than in urban areas, but marijuana enforcement isn’t a very high priority, it’s just that there’s a lot of marijuana smoking.
And there are a lot of people that still act as if it were more or less legal. And therefore, violate Cheech and Chong’s first rule of marijuana smoking, which is don’t blow smoke [in a] cop’s face. So there are a lot of arrests. Most of them don’t lead to much of anything, except annoyance and embarrassment.
Now at the federal level, where there is a lot of effort at domestic marijuana production, you get a substantial number of people going to prison for mostly large scale cultivation. There are relatively many marijuana prisoners in the federal prison system, but that system holds only about 10% of the nation’s prison population; the other 90% are in state and county institutions.