Buying marijuana turns into a bummer as price soars, supplies disappear

December 23, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Oh, wow, man. Bummer.

What a hassle to buy marijuana.

Nobody has any. And if they did, who could afford it?

Are you ready, man? $200 an ounce. $300 if it's really good stuff, like, you know, sinsemilla or Maui wowie or Thai weed. Four hundred if you're buying in New York or L.A.

Remember the early '70s, when grass cost $20 to $40 a lid? (A lid is an ounce, for those who missed the 1960s.) These days, marijuana can cost literally as much as gold, which is a mere $370 an ounce. Call it the ultimate reefer madness.

A generation ago, marijuana helped launch the drug culture of the '60s. Now, the plant regarded by its proponents as the marshmallow of drugs has risen to the pricey status of the narcotics it is accused of "leading to" -- cocaine and heroin.

Per dose, marijuana now costs as much as cocaine, once considered the champagne of drugs. It costs more per hit than crack, which is as cheap and plentiful as grass used to be.

And here's the real downer for smokers: While cocaine can be bought on street corners from the comfort of your car, marijuana is harder than ever to find. There are weekend smokers who swear they haven't been able to buy any since spring. It's so scarce that dealers sell it by as little as an eighth of an ounce.

How expensive is it? In Philadelphia, for example, a nickel ($5) bag now costs 20 bucks.

What's going on here?

Here are the theories of users, dealers, narcs, the federal drug czar, the Drug Enforcement Administration, High Times magazine:

* The last two U.S. marijuana harvests have been poor in both quantity and quality. Normally, prices rise every fall before the autumn harvest because of temporary shortages, then drop back. This year, prices took off and never came down. No one knows exactly why.

* The war on drugs is snuffing out marijuana. The feds have burned or intercepted so much marijuana this year -- 90 percent of Hawaii's harvest went up in smoke, they say -- that demand has outstripped supply. Agents destroyed 129 million marijuana plants last year, up from 107 million in 1988.

* The age of Zero Tolerance is scaring smokers away. Marijuana is a drug. Drugs are bad. It's no longer cool to smoke a joint at a party. Federal estimates put the number of American marijuana smokers at 12 million, down from 18.5 million in 1985. (Marijuana proponents' estimate is also down -- but to 30 million).

* Most dealers have long preferred cocaine and crack, which are light, valuable and addictive. Marijuana is bulky. It's hard to haul and hide -- and it isn't addictive. You can fit $800,000 worth of cocaine into a suitcase. Even with the price of marijuana skyrocketing, you couldn't cram $800,000 worth of marijuana into a stretch limo.

* The baby boomers who smoked dope back when everybody seemed to smoke dope are working stiffs now. Their employers require drug tests. They're busy. They're health-conscious. And smoking marijuana sets a bad example for the kids.

* Recent state forfeiture laws apply to "soft" marijuana as well as such "hard" drugs as cocaine and heroin. The feds seized $29 million in property from alleged marijuana dealers last year, so growing plants or selling marijuana could cost you your house -- or at least a fine, jail time or loads of embarrassment.

"With eradication so successful, and with growers reluctant to take big risks, the result is a dearth of marijuana," said Ben Banta of the National Drug Control Policy office.

For all those reasons and more, buying and smoking marijuana )) just isn't what it used to be. Mores and attitudes are turning against the leaf.

And even at a time when the national drug focus is on cocaine, marijuana arrests still account for nearly half of all drug arrests. Last year, 314,553 Americans were arrested for marijuana possession, only slightly fewer than the 391,600 busted in 1979, when marijuana smoking peaked.

The folks at NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, blame the federal drug war for driving what they say is a safe drug into the category of narcotics.

By criminalizing marijuana and destroying supplies, NORML says, the government is making marijuana attractive to mobsters and big-time dealers.

As a result, people who used to grow a few plants for themselves and their friends no longer do so for fear of being busted.

Now, NORML says, smokers must buy from professional dealers, who for years only dabbled in marijuana because of dropping demand and low prices.

"The days of selling cheap to your friends so everybody stayed happy are long gone," said John Dunlap, NORML's director of public affairs. "It's a capitalistic business now run by a relative handful of big-time dealers."

At High Times magazine, begun in 1974 as a marijuana smokers' bible, publisher Steven Hager accuses the government of conspiring with Big Business to keep marijuana ille

gal because, he says, it can be used to make everything from oil to paper to textiles.

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