Golf lessons. A trip to the beach. Happy Hour at the pub. Like thumbprints and snowflakes, no two entertainment budgets look alike.
We all make choices with how we spend our fun money, and, for the most part, we all have to adjust our financial picture when new recreational outlets come along.
With that in mind, then, it seems prudent (if not premature) to explore how cannabis consumers might work marijuana into their budgets if it ever becomes legal—which some suggest is a foregone conclusion following the approval of medical marijuana in 14 states and three others considering bills to make pot legal for personal use.
Let’s talk numbers first, because last we checked, dime bags cost anything but.
Cannabis sold on the street is derived from any number of agricultural strains. Some are higher quality than others, and thus more expensive.
Nationally, a gram of quality marijuana costs roughly $15 to $20, while an ounce can cost anywhere from $200 to $500, according to government estimates. (See CNBC's analysis of prices and demand)
Little empirical data exists on how much recreational pot users spend each year to get high, since it varies by person. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of National Organization for The Reform of Marijuana Laws, Norml, an advocacy group for the legalization of marijuana, confirms most “regular” users consume pot at least several times per week. With one or two joints per gram—it adds up.
Most marijuana users, he notes, could expect to spend anywhere from $2,300 to $3,500 a year, depending on how often they imbibe and the quality of their product.
That’s roughly in line with how much consumers spend each year on alcohol.
According to a 2009 Gallup survey, those who drink alcohol consume an average of 4.8 alcoholic beverages per week—or nearly 250 per year.
Depending on their drink of choice and whether they consume them at home or a bar (more pricey), that could set them back anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $3,000 per year, or more.
Those who smoke one pack of cigarettes a week, meanwhile, at $7 a pop (it’s higher in some states) drop roughly $364 per year to support their habit. For the pack-a-day smoker, however, that's about $2,550 a year.
A 2008 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Samsha, estimated 15.2 million Americans used marijuana at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey, while 129 million drank alcohol, including beer, liquor, wine and mixed drinks—23 percent of them (58 million) reported participating in binge drinking
Another 71 million Americans age 12 and older were current users of a tobacco product, of which nearly 60 million smoked cigarettes.
How much it might cost you to light up on a regular basis if weed becomes legal, however, is something of a moving target.
Most predict taxes and regulation of the product would force prices lower by up to 50 percent since drug dealers would no longer charge a premium for risking jail time—much like the price of alcohol after the prohibition was lifted in 1933.
Lawmakers in Tennessee, who are mulling a bill to legalize medicinal marijuana, seem to agree. Those who drafted the proposal estimate the cost would be roughly $60 an ounce, 20 percent of which would come back to the state to administer the program.
“That’s probably 75 percent below current black market prices,” says Paul Kuhn, a partner with an investment management firm in Tennessee and board member of Norml. “Like wine, there is a pretty good correlation between quality and price. You can have someone paying $500 an ounce for cannabis or $200 an ounce.”
Regardless of price, however, those who choose to partake of pot in a post-prohibition society would have to consider its impact on their bottom line—especially if they plan to hit the pipe consistently.
“This [marijuana] would be considered a luxury item obviously so you need to classify that as any other entertainment expense and then see if it fits within your budget,” he says. “What’s more important? Smoking marijuana or your longer-term goals?”
While some suggest the fiscally responsible should allocate no more than 5 percent of their total budget towards entertainment, Cook says he believes the correct percentage is whatever your income and expenses will bear.
If you’re fully funding your 401(k), directing an appropriate amount towards your kids 529 college savings plans and you’ve set aside an emergency fund worth at least 3 to 6 months of living expenses, says Cook, how you spend your discretionary income—and how much you spend—is up to you.
If, after crunching the numbers, however, you find your income is insufficient to support a new hobby, it’s time to reassess.
“Are you buying Starbucks every day or would you rather buy marijuana?” says Cook, noting he does not use weed himself. “I know couples where both parties work, but they have a housekeeper. That seems kind of luxurious. It all boils down to priorities.”
Remember, too, if pot becomes legal, you may be able to reduce or eliminate your expenditure for alcohol or tobacco as a source of after-hours relaxation.
Kuhn adds that marijuana would likely be first to go “if you fall on hard times” since it exists in the category of a discretionary expense—but not necessarily.
A popular 1970s catchphrase from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, an underground comic strip, suggests “dope will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no dope.”