Put Yourself in the Economical User's Sandals

Hot off the wire, (the wire is "blazing hot", of course, "smokin", etc. etc.) is this cute little article about an informal contest among design firms to see what a legalized marijuana package might look like.

Good fun of course, and a motion from design fiction to fact. I was recently in California and spoke to some residents about the medical marijuana clinics. In case you aren't way into the pot culture, or haven't read a Time magazine lately, in California pot is essentially decriminalized, and available to purchase in retail storefronts by anyone who can pick up a "medical license". Some of these are like the quintessential Amsterdam coffee shop, and others are more like a check cashing store, and still others are like a sketchy food cart that feels like it is a front to sell drugs even though it is legal to sell drugs. But the point is, it's rapidly approaching being fully legal and taxable, and whereas five years ago I would have said I would never see full legalization but my children might, today I would say I can see full legalization in at least some states in less than ten years for sure. Hell, I even saw a sheet of COUPONS for a weed clinic. "Buy One 1/8, Get One Free", and "New Hydro, ONLY $375 An OZ!" I'm not kidding. These were printed on a flyer, and an acquaintance carefully cut one out and stuck it in her wallet for later use. The dream is almost a reality, stoner layabouts.

The funny part is, it doesn't seem to change society in the slightest. Stoners are still stoners, and the rest of us wait patiently behind the wheel of the car while they try to find their keys and decide whether they want to go to In and Out or Fatburger. The main change I can imagine is, if California beats the rest of the country to full legalization by a significant margin, which it looks as if they might, then we will see a wave of young people swarming across the country from the uptight states. Everybody eventually knows somebody who picked up and took off for Amsterdam, but when leaving some place like Mississippi or Indiana to arrive in a sunny, beautiful state where the streets are paved with green is only an old mini-van or Greyhound bus ticket away, we're going to have a diaspora of anyone who ever got suspended in school for dying their hair heading West. Kind of like the 60s. 12% unemployment? Who cares! I'll just smoke and write on the Internet or start a band or something. The rent in Eureka is about as cheap as anywhere. Maybe they can squat the abandoned homes of the Inland Empire, which will more likely than not still be there. It'll be like a giant college town, only with no library.

But I just don't see the packaging looking anything like what these designers have invented. These all look like beauty products. Marijuana is a lot of things, but it is not a beauty product. At least not to the people who really use it.

I have no doubt that these designers have used marijuana. But they didn't consult a focus group here. It is evident in their designs. The weird thing about illegal drugs is that everybody thinks they are an expert in the subject. (I'm talking about socially acceptable drugs here. Nobody claims to be a crack expert... well, almost nobody.) Perhaps it is because these sorts of drugs provide such an ego-intensive experiment, full of first-hand sensation delivered at a thousand miles an hour, that after you baseline, the user is totally ready to tell you anything and everything true about the substance and its use. Don't believe me? Check out Erowid.org. It takes the intoxication-tale pissing contest to a scientific-method extreme.

But the fact is, no matter how much you did any particular drug back in the day, there is someone who did a lot more than you. It's not contest of course, but it's true. The consumer base of intoxicating, illegal drugs is a crazy slope, and you have to take this into account when thinking about the legalization of any such substance.

I have the benefit of at one time being fully ensconced in what one might call a prototypical, control drug culture. The situation was this: a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere. There are two important aspects to this.

1- There was nothing much to do for many people except experiment with drugs.

2- There was always a shortage of drugs. Meaning that:

A- Everyone who did drugs knew each other.

B- Everyone who did drugs had a pretty good idea of what drugs were available anywhere at any particular time.

It would have made a remarkable sociology study, if anyone had felt like betraying the culture just to write a paper (luckily there were plenty of prisons, ghettos, dying farm towns, etc. to study instead). The cops loved it too, because anytime they got some poor soul to give them information, they could get a bust big enough to give them something to do and justify their departmental spending. Iowa State Police LOVED our school (and probably still do).

But here's what I saw. Of the drug consuming population, people who ever do anything, I would say 90% of the drugs were consumed by less that 50% of the people. And of these 50%, these "regular users", I would say there was a 10%, or 5% of the total, who consumed 75% of the Regular Users' share, or 67% of the total drug quantity. And THEN, of these, call the "hardcore users", I would say there was 1/12 of them, or 0.8% of the Regular Users, or 0.4% of the total users, who would be "suppliers and distributors". They would probably consume 1/8 of the Hardcore share, or 8.4% of the total drugs consumed.

Confused? Well, I would hardly be discussing economic groups if I didn't give you a graph, so here you go. Click for bigger, of course.

The point is that, as you can see, a minority of all users, who are already a minority among the general population, consume a majority of the drug supply. No, I don't have any actual data to back this up, and these are my estimations, but I feel these are pretty accurate. Trust me: I spent A LOT of time puzzling over these figures. Supply and demand, buddy.

So if even among blazed, joint-toting, full-on stoners, the sizable portion of the weed is being smoked by only the most stoned of the stoned, it would seem that the way to market this product would not be by conforming to the standards of design. Design, after all, even with our most blatant commodities, still has some standards of proportion to it. A joint box to fit in the pocket like an iPod, or a package of smoke to look like a sweet little bottle of hand cream. These are products people pay more than they should for, right? Why wouldn't it apply to drugs? Because simply, the majority of the billions spend on pot each year are spent by people who spend more on pot than they spend on rent and food COMBINED. A tenth of drug users are buying 75% of the product. They give hits to their friends, their partners, and whoever happens to be around, but they are buying it. They are the ones who will pay attention to the marketing (if they aren't too stoned to do so).

Can you imagine designing an App Store for somebody who spends more than their rent on apps a year? You don't need to worry about clean lines, my friends! You need to worry about your product! A dedicated pot smoker, the core customer, is going to buy weed regardless of what it looks like. If they have the money, they'll go for the high grade. If they don't, they won't. A once-a-month smoker may pause in front of the rack, looking over the packaging, and finding a box that will fit in their skinny jeans. A real pothead will keep storing pot in the same film canister used since the sixth grade, because most of the other money will be spent on pot.

It sounds like an addiction, but it is really not, at least in the terms of Christian, moral "way and the life" philosophy. Potheads will spend their last dime on grass, but they will not steal your stereo. They will also blow fifty bucks on a video game, or a huge meal. They are not people whose body has become slave to a substance. They are consumers to the core, but they might just be more pure consumers than you and me. They care about consuming, and being able to continue to consume regularly, as best as they can. They are the true gourmands, not falling prey to little design fetishes. They buy with their bodies, not despite their bodies. They focus on the reality of consumption, not the american dream. There is no skinny-leg, wide-screen plasma pot. There is only good pot, and not so great pot. The names of strains are just a way to remember them. They are the purest of logos and slogans, not attempting to transmit anything other than brand recognition. They are dedicated users. They admire only quality, good deals, and availability. They are the internet users of the intoxicant grey market.

You cannot sex up pot. I remember laughing at the covers and centerfolds of High Times, sporting busty chicks with thai sticks between their thighs and breasts. Of course, you'd see them up on dorm room walls. But the stoners didn't buy Playboy and Penthouse. They only liked the skin because the pot was already there. The product was everything, and the skin was the bubblegum with the baseball cards.

Now, what about legalization? What will this change? I have a feeling that legalization will make the model look like my example above. As we left the idyll free-zone of college, those with something to lose, or something else to focus on, gradually slid out of the Hardcore group, into the regular group, and then into the maybe-or-never group. If anything, it concentrated the Hardcore segment, keeping a steady cycle of consumption going among this tight-knit group, while letting the outliers drift further and further away.

It is important to note that this is not just among the college-educated set. This is similar in all demographics I have observed, because these circles and percentages always widen around the "Suppliers", which is the crucial element of the culture. In environments with heavy persecution, the usage and consumption shrinks to the core, because the culture-circle is tightened, and naturally, so is the market. When persecution is relatively lax, it opens up to friends and friends of friends, there is more supply, and more outliers are allowed to join the market.

Just because a legalization scenario will potentially do away with the Suppliers does not mean usage will become a flat line. The upper level of occasional users will increase. But even if marijuana becomes as prevalent as drinks in the bar after work, this is not the sort of consumption activity driving the intoxicating drug market. Alcohol is a bizarre drug, because it is so underpowered, it can be consumed like food. Pot is never food (all suspicious brownies aside). It is pure intoxication, and even if we became a more intoxicated society than we are today, the population is not ready to live the life of a stoner. The regular and hardcore users would remain the same.

Because pot users are true consumers, we can depend on them to follow very closely to economic principles. They are very rational-choice consumers. If they can get good pot cheap from the store, they will do so, but if they stuff Fred grew in his parents' attic is still better and cheaper, they will buy from Fred. The Suppliers I've mentioned will lose their monopoly, but not their selling power. Of course, once everyone and their teenage brother can start a grow room, prices will decrease. The supply will increase, but the consumption will not increase by much, after an initial spurt of users jumping up a bit because of availability. The cultural-circle that once tracked supply will begin to follow quality. Fred will have to grow the good stuff now, and he probably will, because hydroponics is a pretty easy and cheap tech.

What legalization will destroy is the distributive relations between these groups. While previously supply trickled outward from the Suppliers to the outlying groups, now it will come from everywhere, though still consumed similarly. The black market control will be broken, but strangely enough, everyone will still consume the same sorts of product.

What will replace the distributive relations is the knowledge of quality. The knowledge of the intoxicating experience will still drive the purchasing. The former Suppliers will become the Foodies of pot, approving certain brands as quality, and disparaging the mass-produced schwag as swill. "Commercial grade" is already a degrading label for cheap, not gross, but still not great weed. It refers to commercial smuggling ventures, sending large bales of poorly-cured pot across the border, with emphasis on price and quantity rather than quality. Pot cultivation is looked on as a craft, to those with the money to spend. Gourmet strains will florish, and the price will drop. The casual users will look to the hardcore for info about where to go.

The hardcore will not be fooled by marketing and hype. The rhinestone encrusted joints will stay on the shelf, while the solid reputation brands will sell. "Bob Marley" edition joints will maybe be shoplifted by underage teens, while the pricey Internet specialty pot suppliers flourish. I'd look for a "Black and Mild" brand of pot to develop; something without much quality, but a certain economical cache that attracts occasional buyers enough to become well known. Look at some off-brands of malt liquor some time. "Rock Man", "Night Flight", "Hurricane", and others that stock the shelves of states with loose liquor laws (all of these having alcohol contents over 8%) are the choices of the cheap, but quality conscious consumer. 40 oz. of malt liquor for the same price as Miller, but having twice the alcohol? Disgusting, and Sold. Call this the "Night Train" marketing path. Bright, primary colors, an easy device to recognize like a train or a boat, and the best bang for your buck. This is what the marketing future of marijuana will hold. You'll hear about it on a rap song, and then go looking for the one store in the area that carries it.

The take away point here is that you have to look at your product. Not the commodifying concept of the product you may have (good times, giggling, munchies, joints and lost keys), but the actual consumption of the product (intoxication, consistent supply, word of mouth, and ratios of use among different lifestyles). Among other things, this suggests that the overall amount of consumption might not really change by much, but the pattern of the culture by which this usage aligns itself will change. Being stoned is largely an ego-trip, and these egos will align themselves towards increasing their experience thusly. These purest of consumers will swing towards the flows of supply they seek, like a compass towards a magnet.

ps. 420 420 420 420 lol !!!

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