Legal weed prices remain high, sending some back to illicit dealers


AP Photo/Richard Vogel

In this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo, marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, that would grant legal marijuana businesses access to banking, a measure that would clear up a longstanding headache for the industry.

Recreational annabis is legal now, but that hasn’t changed the way some people purchase their weed.  Sales taxes on cannabis are currently very high, some products having a 25 percent tax by the state alone. Adding the other applicable taxes to that, the highest taxed cannabis products – those with over 35 percent THC content – will have a tax over 40 percent once the new county tax is implemented this summer.

Some people are finding it worth the risk to find cheaper, black market sources for their weed. 26-year-old North Side resident Chad A. has begun what resembles a buying cooperative with several of his friends to save on costs.

“We all have tight budgets and were shocked when we visited a dispensary here. The prices are high, and after taxes it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

The illegality of doing things like this does worry Chad and his friends, but they have decided that the risk is worth the reward.

“It’s hundreds of dollars that we save every month, and the products are actually higher quality most of the time,” Chad said. “Something big would have to change for me to start using a dispensary here.”

As the second highest taxed state for cannabis sales, Illinois may have a tough time attracting buyers to legal options for purchase. This is especially true in young people who have very limited room in their budgets for this type of product.

“I like to smoke [weed] and so do my roommates, but none of us can afford to spend a lot,” Chad said. “We’ve been smoking since before the legalization, and we’re excited to see this change coming but it hasn’t changed much for us.”

The amount the new law allows you to possess is 30 grams, assuming you are an Illinois resident and half that otherwise. This is a turnoff for more regular smokers.

“We might not smoke that much in a month, but by forcing people to buy in such small amounts you are really driving up the price. It just seems way too greedy,” Chad said.

Some people do use the approved system, though, like Amy Santoro, an Evanston resident who works in Chicago.

“I only smoke occasionally and hate the feeling that I’m breaking the law,” Santoro said. “That used to keep me from smoking weed, now I just feel less scared to do it.”

Legal repercussions seem to bother some more than others.

“It’s just worth the money for me, I do not want some stupid mistake to get me put in jail or worse,” she said.  “I do not know the laws enough to feel comfortable taking a huge risk like that.”

There is seemingly a difference in how people view this risk-reward equation here. Some people consume more weed, making the financial advantage more considerable, and the black market more attractive. Some others, like Santoro, just don’t see enough benefit to consider that risk worth it.

Something to consider is financial means. If the students and others on shoestring budgets are unable to afford cannabis by legal means, has this change really been effective? Will those who cannot afford legal cannabis now change their habits once they can afford it? Will this legalization have the desired effect on black market sales?

“I don’t know anyone who goes to a dispensary regularly,” said Evan H., a student at a community college in the northwest suburbs.  “After the New Year’s Day hype, I think that everyone realized what a rip-off they are.

“I feel like it’s just like alcohol, unless you are doing something really stupid you have nothing to worry about,” he added. “I don’t know anyone who started smoking [weed] just because it’s legal now, so it’s not like much has changed. I still get it from the same place as before, I just worry a little less about getting caught with it on me.”

There is a spectrum of cannabis users, and this results in a variety of opinions on how to live with the changes to marijuana laws. For people like Chad, “paying double the price just doesn’t make sense.” Those like Amy worry about breaking the law too much to even consider buying from illegal sources. These changes are all so new that the full impact is difficult to measure, and surely there is plenty left to be learned about how the community is adapting to the new laws.