Marijuana Markets: Inferences from Reports by the Household Population

Article excerpt

Generally more is known about drug use and demand than about markets and supply, in large part because population survey data are available while market data are not. Although the household population represents a relatively small proportion of users of hard drugs, it represents a large proportion of the population using marijuana and participating in marijuana markets. This paper provides a description of marijuana market and acquisition patterns as reported by participants in the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. We find that most respondents obtain marijuana indoors (87%), from a friend or relative (89%), and for free (58%). Retail marijuana distribution appears to be embedded in social networks rather than being dominated by "professional" sellers. Despite these contrasts with stereotypical street markets for cocaine and heroin, there are also similarities, such as evidence of quantity discounts and a minority of users accounting for the majority of purchases. We estimate that there are on the order of 400 million retail marijuana purchases in the U.S. each year and that the average purchase size is small, about six or seven joints.


Drug markets have long been a topic of interest (Preble & Casey, 1969), and disrupting them is a centerpiece of drug control policy - most notably in the U.S. but also abroad (Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP], 2004a; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC], 2004). There is increasing recognition that drug policies ought to be grounded in research on drug markets (Natarajan & Hough, 2000) and that understanding drug markets is central to understanding and controlling drug-related crime (National Institute of Justice [NIJ], 2003). Due to their illicit nature, information on drug markets is not readily available. However, limited information has been gleaned from ethnographic studies and data related to enforcement activities (e.g., the Drug Enforcement Administration's [DEA's] System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence [STRIDE] database).

The information we do have suggests that not all drug markets are alike. In particular, marijuana markets differ substantially from the street markets for cocaine and heroin that have been the focus of so much interesting ethnographic research (Bourgois, 1995; Curtis & Wendel, 2000; Dunlap, Johnson, & Maher, 1997; Johnson, Golub, & Pagan, 1995). Ethnographic data suggest that marijuana sellers are more likely to operate independently (than as part of organized operation), sell indoors, and involve acquaintance or referral networks than street markets for cocaine, crack, and heroin (ONDCP, 2002; ONDCP, 2004b). These latter two findings are supported by results obtained from survey data of populations with a broad geographic spread, including youth (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2003) and arrestees (Taylor, Fitzgerald, Hunt, Reardon, &Brownstein, 2001).

Although some features of the marijuana market have been highlighted in previous studies, no study to date has looked carefully at the structure and characteristics of U.S. marijuana markets and the individuals who participate in them. This is surprising given that it is the most widely used illicit substance (SAMHSA, 2003) and a major focus of the Bush administration's drug policy. It is also surprising because major population surveys such as NIJ's Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program and SAMHS A's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse have recently included modules that inquire about users' purchasing habits.

Survey data obtained from the household population would not generally be viewed as a reliable source for information about the acquisition of hard drugs because the household population represents such a small proportion of total demand in these markets. However, there is evidence that these data sources may be useful for understanding marijuana markets (ONDCP, 2001). …