Photograph by Alessandro Bianchi — Reuters
By Chris Matthews
February 18, 2015

The liberalization of cannabis laws has been one of the biggest and most surprising business stories of the past decade.

Over the past 10 years, several states in the U.S. have legalized medical marijuana, while four—Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska—have legalized recreational use. Meanwhile, poll data shows that a majority of Americans support outright legalization for the first time. As of January, 23 states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow marijuana use of some kind, and we can expect to see additional ballot measures addressing the issue in the years to come.

The legal changes have been a boon for legitimate businesses, which are scrambling to get a piece of the more than $40 billion U.S. consumers spend per year on the drug, according to an estimate from the Rand Corporation.

These companies must tread lightly since cannabis remains illegal on the federal level and in most countries around the world. At the same time, many analysts believe that the pot industry is ripe for consolidation as more legal barriers come down. After all, the weed market would benefit from economies of scale, and the company that successfully captures the public’s imagination with the right branding could be a nationwide player.

David Sealy, an analyst with The Boston Company, argues that Big Tobacco companies are well positioned to use their experience selling cigarettes and dealing with zealous regulators to create a cannabis oligopoly. But any empire builder worth his salt won’t be satisfied just with the U.S. market. The rest of the world is also rethinking marijuana prohibition, with countries like Uruguay allowing a legal and regulated cannabis industry to form this year.

Here are the biggest pot economies in the world, according to data compiled by the Rand Corporation. Rand ranks these countries not by total size of the market for cannabis, but by the percentage of GDP devoted to cannabis in each country, as this measure gives us a better idea of the depth of popularity of the drug in each country.

You’ll notice the U.S. doesn’t make the cut. While Americans spend more on pot than any other developed country, the U.S. also has the largest economy in the world. When you compare American pot purchases to its massive economy, we only spend 0.14% of our total income on the drug, good for 14th place.


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