Aug 31, 2016 9:15 AM

Most Marijuana Users Are Poor and Less Educated, Study Found

The past decade has been notable for the ubiquitous legalization of marijuana policies in many parts of the United States. The total spreading of legal cannabis contributed to the fact that the substance became the most commonly used drug in the country. Just in the last three years, the percentage of American adults who say they smoke weed has nearly doubled. In a recent Gallup poll, one in eight respondents admitted that they were currently smoking marijuana. However, it is not surprising, unlike the results of the study published this month in the Journal of Drug Issues. The researchers found that many of the frequent marijuana users are poor and have low levels of education.

Study authors Steven Davenport and Jonathan Caulkins have analyzed federal drug abuse surveys conducted between 2002 and 2013 in order to pin down the profile of a medium marijuana user. The picture looks not too inspiring: the most frequent marijuana users are more likely to lack a high school diploma and earn less than $20,000 annually.

The study details how since the early 1990s, the amount of those using cannabis on a daily or near-daily basis has jumped from one in nine to one in three in 2013 (68 percent).

The researchers also claim that marijuana users are more similar to cigarette smokers than alcohol drinkers. Over the last twenty years, the drug has gone from being used like alcohol to being used more like tobacco, in the sense of many people using it every day.

Furthermore, Caulkins and Davenport found that 19 percent of all marijuana users in 2012-13 were adults with less than high school education, which is similar to their 20-percent share of all tobacco users, but considerably higher than their 8-percent share of all alcohol users. They also added that most of the users were generally happy with that use, but they tended to be less educated, less affluent, and less in control of their use.

Nearly 30 percent of all cannabis use (and 27 percent of cigarette use) is by people who have annual earnings of less than $20,000. It is noteworthy that 15 percent of them spend a full quarter of their income on the drug.

At the same time, the number of marijuana-related arrests was reported to decrease sharply, with purchases being up in the past decade. According to the study, in 2002, there was one related arrest for every 550 purchases. By 2013, the criminal risk per cannabis transaction has fallen by half: only one of every 1,090 purchases ended with an arrest.

The researchers concluded that the median cannabis user was someone who used the substance periodically, but the amount consumed was not large. However, most of the marijuana consumed in the country is not consumed by median users but rather by very heavy users. Caulkins thinks that the best policy for a typical user sharply contrasts with the best policy for those consuming most of the substance. So, while legalization is not changing lives of typical marijuana users greatly, heavy users may find it cheaper to buy weed and easier to consume more of it.

Cycle of Poverty and Marijuana

It seems obvious that poverty and drug abuse tend to exist in tandem. While a causal relationship has not been scientifically proved, the link between addiction and poverty is certainly something to be considered.

A 1998 study “Does Drug Use Cause Poverty?” by The Economic Analysis of Substance Use and Abuse showed that there was a positive relationship between poverty and cannabis abuse, even when controlling for certain familial factors. The author Robert Kaestner even implied that the substance abuse might be a causal factor in many negative social and economic outcomes, including poverty. He found that drug consumption had its greater effect at the lowest income levels.

It seems that there is a definite link and, perhaps, even some causal effect between drug abuse and poverty. Of course, the study had various limitations. Obviously, the findings are slightly far-fetched. Although evidence seems to suggest that marijuana use may cause poverty, extending this logic to an extreme would be absurd. However, many researchers would agree with the author that those with relatively heavy use have the highest rates of poverty.

But could the causal effect also run the other way? Another study found that illiteracy, poverty, low income, and unemployment could be factors leading to drug abuse. Those who left school early, live in poor housing, and are unemployed, particularly long-term, are more prone to substance abuse than people who do not fit into these categories.

The conventional logic looks simple: if drugs and drug abuse are mixed with poverty and homelessness, if it seems reasonable that drugs play a significant role in causing poverty, criminalizing drugs and taking them out of the equation will help solve the problems. But it is not so simple. First, the causation does not necessarily go from marijuana use to poverty. Poverty may cause people to abuse drugs; mental illnesses may cause both poverty and self-medication. Second, the prohibition of drugs has not been effective at eradicating their use. Trade in illegal substances results in violence because of the high profits and demand from consumers. Violence and corruption associated with illegal drug trade undermine economic development and keep millions in poverty. Drug trade tends to most adversely affect the poor.

While the intensity of drug-related violence is the highest when associated with drug production and trafficking, these do not necessarily produce violence. Since California removed low-level marijuana offenses from the criminal justice system, overall crime has plummeted by almost one-third—to levels never seen before. Meanwhile, non-marijuana drug arrests for Californians have also decreased 23 percent, so the gateway theory was fully debunked.

Regardless of the presidential matchup, cannabis initiatives will make it absolutely impossible for lawmakers to ignore the marijuana issue, as they have done so often in the past.

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