Saturday, April 17, 2010

Notes from The Broccoli File

Notes from the Broccoli File

I have been interested in the question of what legal drugs should cost for a long time (see “Legalizing Marijuana II: The price of Drugs”, Aug. 11, 2009). The question is hard because no legal market has existed during the lifetime of any living person.

My starting point was to compare marijuana to other, legal plant-derived psychoactive compounds: coffee, tea, and tobacco. My conclusion was that $1.00 an ounce would be a reasonable price for legal marijuana. A recent PBS cooking show highlighted broccoli hand-grown on small organic plots for specialty restaurants in San Francisco. That broccoli sold for $3.50 a pound (about $0.20 an ounce).

Since then my motto has been: “Marijuana is Broccoli” and I call my collection of drug price information the “Broccoli File”. Here is a sample of Broccoli file entries, both current and historical. These are just raw data: I have attempted no analysis. I hope someone among the readers with more skills in economics and historical economics than I have (a frighteningly low level to meet) will attempt to give some meaning to them. The usual method for comparing historical prices is to use a ratio based on the daily or yearly earnings of an average worker, but that method is tricky when comparing the two ends of the twentieth century. The changes in productivity caused by advances in technology and automation have dramatically changed the structure of the work force, and those same technological changes have caused greatly different comparative changes in the cost of producing goods based upon the technologies used.

First are some gleanings from recent news stories:

-- Street prices for marijuana in Los Angeles dropped over 20% when the medical marijuana dispensaries opened and some dealers started offering home delivery.

-- Public meetings in Humboldt County, California (heart of the “Green Zone”) express concerns that state legalization will lower marijuana prices at least 50%.

-- Street quality dried and trimmed marijuana may be purchased in one-pound, plastic-sealed packages for $25 at the farms in the Mexican interior.

-- A story about the war in Afghanistan mentioned in passing that American troops in that country were buying hashish for $1.50 an ounce.

I have also gone back and mined some of the standard histories (primarily Musto, “The American Disease” (Expanded edition), Acker, “Creating the American Junkie”, and Tracy and Acker (eds.), “Altering American Consciousness”) for information about drug prices, both legal and illegal, in the 1900 – 1940 period:

--When the import of smoking opium became illegal with the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909, the price of a can of opium jumped from $4.50 to over $9.00. Two factors probably prevented from price from increasing more. First, smoking opium is very dilute, being only 5 -8% morphine while normal opium latex is about 10%, and second, opium, morphine, and heroin were all still available for open purchase. Heroin sniffing became much more popular after smoking opium was banned.

-- Bayer introduced heroin in 1898 and sold both heroin and aspirin at the same price during the period when heroin could be sold legally.

--An addict in 1919, when enforcement of the Harrison Act became rigorous, complained that a dose of 5 gr. of morphine that he used to buy from the drug store for 25¢ now cost $5 from the dealer. (For those as illiterate as I was in apothecary weights, 1 grain = 60 mg.)

--By 1921, when alcohol prohibition had been in effect for a year, a shot of whiskey that had cost 25¢ or 50¢ in a legal saloon had been replaced by a cocktail selling for $3.50 – 5.00 in a speakeasy.

--Dr. Charles Terry, director of the Jacksonville, Florida municipal narcotics clinic, mentions giving prescription for a “dose” of cocaine (probably an ounce) that could be filled for 50¢.

--The New Haven, Connecticut, clinic between 1919 and 1921, was showing a substantial profit dispensing heroin at 4¢ a grain.

-- Pennsylvania still had over 17,000 opiate addicts being maintained on compassionate exemptions to the Harrison Act in 1930. They received about 10 grains a day at a cost of under $4.

Let me end with one last modern case. I recently filled a prescription for a generic equivalent of Vicodin (hydrocodone with acetaminophen). I received twenty 5 mg. tablets for the chain pharmacy’s standard price of $4 for a generic prescription. Therefore, I received 100 mg. of hydrocodone – or 1 tenth of a gram – for $4. This amount is the equivalent of about 1.7 grains for comparison to the earlier prices.

A lot more examples of prices from this crucial 1900 – 1930 period are available for someone willing to do the digging. I hope someone will follow up on these clues and tell us more about the effects of the Harrison Act and the Volstead Act on prohibited substances.


  1. Food as a % of household budget was 30% around 1920.

    Today I think it is under 9%. Maybe under 7%. You can probably look it up.

  2. That's a very good point. Food prices in the 1900-1920 period are easily accessible.

    Another approach would be to use substitution costs or opportunity costs: how does the cost of marijuana or cocaine compare to the price of competing goods? MJ vs. a beer or a movie ticket, etc.

  3. As another price point, back in my day, after I graduated from high school (1976), a "lid" (about an ounce) of ordinary Mexican "brocolli" ran $10. IIRC, minimum wage in those days was $2.10/hr.

    These days, I see the same quality & quantity for about $60-70, depending. I'm sure the young can get it cheaper than that.

    Has anyone out there thought about putting the spot price of this vegetable alongside the min. wage in that same era? I'm just brainstorming here...

    Cheers and Happy Four & Twenty,
    Biker Bil
    Somewhere in Arkansas

  4. A historian from Berkeley told me that in 1912 era a tobacco habit ($15.00/yr) cost more than an opiate addiction. Opiate addicts could supply their addictions for about 25¢a week.
    R Givens

  5. This illustrates one of the problems I was pointing out. In 1912, cigarettes had just come onto the market and did not really replace cigars, snuff, pipes, and chewing until the 1920s. So the $15/yr. can't readily be compared to the cost today.

    However, the 25 cents/week for morphine sounds about right.