Guest MINDSETTER™ Jared Moffat: Tax Marijuana in RI, Not Medicine

Sunday, February 07, 2016


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Despite facing an anticipated $50 million deficit in the coming fiscal year, Governor Raimondo’s recently unveiled budget manages to keep taxes right where they are for almost everyone. One group, however, was inexplicably singled out: sick patients who need medical marijuana to treat symptoms of their debilitating health conditions.

The Governor’s plan would establish a new system in which every medical marijuana plant would be “tagged” and tracked in a state-run software program. These tags would cost patients and caregivers who provide medical marijuana to patients between $150 and $350 per plant.

We tax alcohol, but we don’t tax prescription medications. Similarly, it makes little sense to tax marijuana for those who need it as a medicine while recreational use goes untaxed. This is what is so fundamentally misguided about Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposal to tax medical marijuana patients and their caregivers.

The unfortunate irony is that, while the Governor seems eager to extract an estimated $8.4 million in tax revenue from medical marijuana, recreational users continue to pay no taxes, thanks to Rhode Island’s policy of marijuana prohibition. According to the latest federal survey data, 15 percent of adults in Rhode Island consume marijuana at least once a month, which equates to more than 100,000 regular marijuana consumers in our state. But there are only roughly 11,000 registered medical marijuana patients in Rhode Island. In other words, Governor Raimondo intends to impose harsh taxes on the small group of people who use marijuana for health reasons while the vast majority of marijuana consumers — who use it for fun — contribute nothing to the state coffers.

In addition to collecting tax revenue, another stated objective of the Governor’s plan is to reign in “bad actors” who her office claims are using medical marijuana licenses as a shield while they sell marijuana out the back door to the underground illicit market. The entire reason, however, the illicit marijuana market exists is because of our state’s senseless policy of marijuana prohibition. Because state lawmakers have not created legal access for the multitude of regular non-medical marijuana consumers, the illicit marijuana economy thrives. We learned this lesson 100 years ago with alcohol prohibition: if you prohibit a substance that is in high demand, an illicit market will inevitably fill the void to create a supply.

Because the vast majority of marijuana consumption in Rhode Island is from recreational users who buy marijuana illegally, imposing further regulations on medical marijuana patients and caregivers will not even make a dent in the illicit underground market. If the goal is to reduce the flow of illegal marijuana, the only solution is to create a legal avenue for consumers to purchase these products. Instead of implying that medical marijuana patients and caregivers are the reason for the underground marijuana market, Governor Raimondo should be urging lawmakers to pass legislation to regulate and tax recreational marijuana.

The idea of regulating and taxing recreational marijuana is neither new nor unpopular in Rhode Island. In fact, quite the opposite is true. A poll last April found that 57 percent of Rhode Island voters support regulating marijuana like alcohol. Smaller polls conducted in localities and towns found majority support all over the state, from Cumberland to Newport. Comprehensive legislation that would establish a system to allow adults to legally purchase marijuana from licensed businesses has been introduced and debated in legislative committees for five years. Instead of introducing a highly controversial proposal to tax medical marijuana, why would Governor Raimondo not endorse a widely supported proposal to tax and regulate recreational marijuana?

 By throwing support behind taxing and regulating recreational marijuana, the governor could have hit a couple of other birds with the same stone: jobs and the opiate addiction crisis, which were two top priorities she highlighted in her state of the state speech.

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Colorado has seen tremendous economic growth since they ended marijuana prohibition. They have issued over 20,000 occupational licenses to workers in the legal marijuana sector. They have seen the growth of hundreds of new businesses, from agricultural hemp farmers to high-tech laboratories used for testing marijuana products. Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper has also pointed to legal marijuana as an attractor for young people moving to his state — something Rhode Island should consider as it confronts the “brain drain” problem.

In addition, legislation to regulate and tax recreational marijuana has consistently included a provision that earmarks millions of dollars in revenue to provide more substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. This boost of tax revenue from recreational marijuana would allow us to invest in resources to combat opiate addiction and overdose in a way that is currently unimaginable.

As states like Massachusetts and Vermont move towards a system of legal marijuana this year, Rhode Island should get serious about this issue, too. Instead of squeezing tax revenue from patients who use marijuana to ease their suffering, I hope Governor Raimondo will reconsider her proposal and instead focus her attention on a much more sensible idea that will generate far more tax revenue, erode the illicit marijuana market, and create new economic opportunities for our state.


Related Slideshow: New England States with Highest Marijuana Arrest Rates

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6. Massachusetts

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 51

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 18

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 49

2010 Raw Arrests: 1,191

Photo: Flickr/Blind Nomad

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5. Vermont

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 48

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 119

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 51

2010 Raw Arrests: 737

Photo: Flickr/Victor

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4. New Hampshire

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 33

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 210

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 41

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,769

Photo: Flickr/Blind Nomad

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3. Rhode Island

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 31

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 214

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 43

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,243

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2. Maine

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 30

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 214

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 40

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,842

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1. Connecticut

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 23

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 247

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 25

2010 Raw Arrests: 8,815

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Number One Overall

Washington D.C.

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 1

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 846

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 34

2010 Raw Arrests: 5,115

Photo: Flickr/Torben Hansen


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