Budget Buster: Is alcohol or weed the cheaper vice?

Budget Buster: Is alcohol or weed the cheaper vice?

OPINION: One of the highlights of a recent trip to the United States was visiting a legal weed store.

It’s like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory for grown-ups: a cave of wonders filled with candies and baked goods and vape pens and resins and all sorts of hi-tech paraphernalia that make the traditional Powerade bottle and socket wrench combo look like primitive Stone Age relics.

Obviously I have never bought marijuana in New Zealand, because that’s against the law. But my close friend tells me you can never be sure of the provenance, strength, strain, age, and whether it’s been sprayed with insecticides or other nasties.

With legal weed, you know the exact blend, THC content and dosage, and have plenty of smoke-free options. It’s worth paying a premium for that kind of certainty and harm reduction.


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Previously, this column has looked at the costs and benefits of alcohol consumption, and concluded that drinking in moderation is great value for money.

With a cannabis referendum on the horizon, it’s time to ask the important question: could smoking pot be even cheaper than boozing?

Medicinal cannabis for sale in San Francisco. New Zealanders will vote next year on whether to legalise it.


Medicinal cannabis for sale in San Francisco. New Zealanders will vote next year on whether to legalise it.

A standard drink of alcohol costs anywhere from 80c for cheap cask wine, to about $1.30 for spirits, $1.60 for beer, and $5 in a bar (e.g. an $8 beer containing 1.3 standard drinks).

Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent standard unit for weed. The potency of different strains vary quite a bit, and so does tolerance between individuals.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to set the ‘standard toke’ at 0.05 grams, or a couple of good hits on a joint. That means there are about six standard tokes to a joint, which would be the equivalent of drinking a whole bottle of wine.

I think this is about right: smoking an entire gram during a session (about three joints) will make most people hit the floor, the same as downing three bottles of wine.

Legal weed costs about US$8-$10 a gram in the US and Canada, which means each ‘standard toke’ comes in at US45c (70c).

Now we can compare with alcohol: at 70c a unit, high-quality legal weed is no more expensive than the cheapest goon sack wine, twice as affordable as beer or whiskey, and seven times cheaper than drinking at a bar. It’s an even more attractive deal for those who rarely dabble; not quite as good for seasoned smokers who have a tolerance.

Marijuana has its health costs but is less addictive than alcohol, writes Richard Meadows.


Marijuana has its health costs but is less addictive than alcohol, writes Richard Meadows.

Of course, we don’t know how much legal weed will cost in New Zealand, or whether you’ll be able to grow your own plants. I’d be happy if it stayed at the current black market price, so long as all the non-financial costs were eliminated. 

Right now, these costs are pretty high: a drug conviction can be disastrous, some workplaces test for marijuana, and losing your job is really expensive.

There are health costs, too. Anyone who tells you weed is some kind of harmless medicine is not thinking clearly. Oh, it’s natural? Cool: so is strychnine.

The facts are that marijuana is unambiguously bad for young brains, can trigger psychosis in those who are susceptible, and messes up your lungs (unless you vape or take edibles).

On the other hand, it’s less addictive than alcohol, there are no crippling hangovers, and no poisoning or overdoses.

Comparing the health impacts is difficult, but the general consensus is that weed is probably less harmful than drinking, and almost certainly no worse.

Which bring us to the referendum decision.

I can (sort of) respect the puritans who want to ban weed, alcohol, and anything stronger than English breakfast tea. At least they’re consistent. But it takes some Olympic-level mental gymnastics to sit there sipping your supermarket-bought Merlot while denying others the right to peacefully enjoy their own vices.

I ran some numbers a couple of years ago and came up with half a billion reasons for legalising marijuana, including cost savings for police and prisons, a whole new market with export potential, and excise tax on consumption.

On top of all that big-picture stuff, it looks like legal weed is a win for your personal financial situation, too. Maybe those stoners aren’t so dumb after all.

Got a burning money question? Email Budget Buster at richard.meadows@thedeepdish.org, or hit him up on Facebook. You can also find links to previous Budget Busters here.  

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