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Who uses the most marijuana — and what it means for legalization

The most frequent marijuana users aren't college-educated hipsters but rather people without any college education, suggesting that changes in pot policy can have the largest impact on economically vulnerable populations.

Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, posted the federal survey data at Wonkblog to show that, contrary to some stereotypes, college graduates account for around 17 percent of marijuana use, although they make up about 29 percent of the adult population. The major implication of this data, Humphreys noted, is that marijuana use very much mirrors tobacco use: it's clustered among lower social classes.

Humphreys offers an explanation for why the stereotype of the college-educated, pot-smoking hipster persists in media and popular culture: "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 US marijuana scene."

The data is also useful for shaping policy: it shows who is more vulnerable to a drug policy regime that incarcerates nonviolent pot users, and who is at greater risk if marijuana legalization eventually allows big businesses to market the drug with very little oversight.

The chart presents an argument for decriminalization — but against commercialization

The chart can be easily interpreted as an argument for decriminalizing marijuana, as Dan Riffle of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project noted on Twitter. The last thing someone who's poor, young, and uneducated needs is a criminal record for possessing marijuana — that's going to make it a lot more difficult to find a well-paying job and move up the economic ladder.

But the chart also offers an argument against the commercialization of legalized marijuana. As drug policy experts have previously told me, the biggest risk of marijuana is that a user will lose control of his pot intake and become dependent on it. If pot is legalized, and retail sales and widespread commercialization make it more accessible, it could be easier for problematic pot users to obtain the drug — and it's going to be very difficult for them to rise to their potential if they're frequently intoxicated.

Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, explained: "At some level, we know that spending more than half of your waking hours intoxicated for years and years on end is not increasing the likelihood that you'll win a Pulitzer Prize or discover the cure for cancer."

There's some precedent for worrying about the impact of commercialization on low-income people: a University of Minnesota study of 10 cities found that liquor stores are much more common in poor neighborhoods, where these businesses can target a less-educated demographic that may be more prone to substance abuse. It's possible a similar scenario could eventually play out with marijuana if it's legalized and a big marijuana industry strong-arms policymakers into weak regulations, as the alcohol industry has done in many states.

But commercialization isn't the only way to legalize marijuana; drug policy experts emphasize there are about a dozen ways to alter marijuana policy without sticking to the current form of prohibition. A January report from the RAND Corporation suggested, as one way forward, that state governments could monopolize production and sales and sell marijuana through state-operated shops. The report found states that did this with alcohol kept prices higher, reduced access of alcohol to youth, and reduced overall levels of use.

This kind of approach is very difficult to do through ballot initiative, the favorite method of changing marijuana policy in recent years, because not many people are open to the idea of turning their state government into a drug dealer. But it's an idea drug policy experts want voters and legislators to take seriously — and breaking stereotypes about who smokes pot shows why it's important.

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