The other day I walked into a local “tobacco shop,” looking for someone to interview about a new website that documents the price of marijuana around the U.S. and the world.
I would call this place a “head shop,” but a handwritten sign hanging at eye-level informed me that using that particular term, referring to any illegal use of the merchandise, or using the word “bong” would get me kicked out. All of these rules made my interview — even my request for an interview — very difficult.
So after explaining to the clerk that I was hoping to ask him about a new website but couldn’t do it without breaking the rules, he suggested that I write the name of the site on my business card and that perhaps he’d call me later.
So I wrote “priceofweed.com” and handed him my card. He shook his head and said, “Now I have to ask you to leave.”
And there you have the raison d’être for PriceOfWeed, which turns to the crowd to answer the question, “What is marijuana really worth?”
Through Poynter’s sense-making project (which is funded by the Ford Foundation), we are looking at different ways people obtain and create information outside of traditional media. Though this work isn’t generally seen as “big-J Journalism,” it does have journalistic strains.
Practically any area of information could be fodder for such “Fifth Estate” enterprises, as we call them, but marijuana seems particularly well-suited. Though a few parts of the country have legalized medical marijuana use, it’s mostly illegal. And even amid occasional public debate about legalizing the drug, its social stigma remains.
These characteristics make it hard to learn much about the marketplace. Consumers are limited to their own experiences and that of their like-minded acquaintances. The rest of us participate in the debate over legalization, with limited information provided mostly by law enforcement. This is the kind of information gap that can be filled with Web 2.0 tools.
Anonymous, crowdsourced data
I e-mailed the guys behind the website, which launched this month. Not surprisingly, they would only identify themselves by their first names, Cory and Andy, because “regardless of how you spin it, we are still talking about a drug that is still illegal in most parts of the world.” They said they’re both 23 years old and live near Toronto. (I couldn’t verify much of what they told me.)
“I was watching a National Geographic documentary about drugs and they threw out some numbers about the street value of weed as it moves from, for example, Mexico to the United States,” Cory wrote.
“I didn’t think the numbers were too accurate. I wondered if anyone really knew the price of weed aside from guessing. So I figured, why not crowdsource this data and share it with everyone?”
Cory and Andy aren’t the first to try to provide this information online, but they may be the first people to try to structure it. The couple of sites I found that purport to track marijuana prices offer outdated, anecdotal information and not-exactly helpful tips.
One of those sites, WeBeHigh, advises buyers in Tampa to “stay out of the ghetto,” “scout around” the University of South Florida, and to look for the first hippie. (I’m sure that conversation would go well.)
“WeBeHigh is pretty much the same idea, but from the stone age,” Cory and Andy wrote. “They use an individual writer’s subjective account and opinion of marijuana in their city. There’s no real, concrete data available.”
PriceOfWeed takes a more structured approach, asking users to enter where they bought their marijuana, how much they purchased, what they paid, and an assessment of its quality. That last item is of course subjective — but such is the nature of an enterprise like this.
Anonymity, of course, is key. The site says that it doesn’t record IP addresses when people submit their data, so it’s “essentially anonymous.” (“It’s either anonymous, or an ingeniously devious DEA sting operation,” noted LA Weekly.)
Sample size is important, too. PriceOfWeed notes how many submissions were used to calculate each average price. As of Sept. 15 — after Reddit, Hacker News, Business Insider, Time and CBS brought them some attention — the site had received 3,000 submissions, according to the blog. They told me that’s now up to 10,000.
Cory and Andy have also tried to prevent people from gaming the system. After people started to skew the calculations by entering artificially high and low prices, they changed their back-end formula, discarding entries that are too far outside the mean.
“We always knew we would have to use math to clean up the average, considering we were using user-submitted data, which is always subject to abuse,” they told me. (Whoever responded to my e-mailed questions switched between “I” and “we,” so I have attributed statements that don’t use the first person to both of them.)
Creating transparency in the black market
Marijuana, like anything sold on the black market, provides a classic case of “information asymmetry,” in which one of the parties involved in a transaction has better information than the other person.
There’s some degree of information asymmetry in many transactions. (The Gap knows a lot more about the “value” of those jeans than shoppers.) But thanks to the Web, consumers know more than they once did. People who once had no idea if they were getting a good deal on a car now walk into dealerships armed with information from car-buying sites.
There are plenty of gaps, though — and not just for the black market. Consider abortion, which is legal but highly stigmatized. Does the cost of an abortion vary from region to region or clinic to clinic? Does the level of regulation from state to state affect the price? Good questions — and not academic ones.
Journalistic, but not journalists
I’m not going to call PriceOfWeed “journalism,” but it is a source of information with a straightforward methodology and easy-to-discern limitations. Often, information is what people want; they don’t care whether it’s called journalism.
“I no longer see the point in debating the definition of journalism,” wrote Adrian Holovaty in response to the debate over whether presenting data online should be considered journalism. “I’m interested in building products that improve people’s lives via information. Whether somebody calls that ‘journalism’ is utterly uninteresting.”
Like others who create these new sources of information outside traditional means, the founders of PriceOfWeed said they don’t really have much interest in journalism. Cory has a degree in business; Andy has one in degree in computer engineering.
“While we have a personal curiosity about the tale of marijuana in North America, we’re probably closer to businessmen and engineers,” they wrote. “We like building websites and pursuing our ideas.”
Yet they are also asking the kinds of questions journalists would ask. In a blog post about how they want to create new ways to visualize their data, they wrote, “One thing we have in mind is to plot the change in price in California after Prop19 passes.”
And they are using the site to survey site users’ attitudes about marijuana and law enforcement levels in their communities. Users can submit their opinion after they submit a price. According to the site, Colorado is relatively tolerant of marijuana and law enforcement there is lax; on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being tolerant and lax, Colorado is rated a 2 on both scales. That makes sense, given that the state has legalized marijuana for medical use.
It goes without saying that this sample is skewed, but I think it does contribute to the body of knowledge about marijuana. Florida, for instance, rates a 3 out of 5 in social acceptance and a 4 out of 5 in law enforcement. Perhaps that explains the apprehension of that clerk in the “tobacco shop.”
“Those are just some raw ideas about gathering ‘social’ data about a community,” the two told me in an e-mail. “There is most likely a trend or relationship between the way a community treats marijuana and the price of it in that city. My hypothesis is the less tolerant and more enforcement against it, the higher the price obviously.”
I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m interested to see what they find out. Whether or not you believe marijuana should be legal, the more we know about it, the more informed our public discussion will be. The question is whether two anonymous Canadians can create something that reliably informs our discussion.