Among the hundreds of proposals contained in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s second executive budget
, which he unveiled on Tuesday in Albany, is a provision that would impose a $3.50-a-gram tax on marijuana and a $200-a-gram tax on other illegal drugs, like cocaine.We took a look at the fine print
to better understand the details of this legislative proposal — which, incidentally, is very similar to a proposal that Mayor Edward I. Koch put forward in 1988
. (That proposal, to tax illegal drugs in New York City, also at a rate of $200 a gram, did not come to fruition.)
The new Spitzer proposal would require “tax stamps” on “all marihuana and controlled substances acquired or possessed by a dealer in this state,” defined as any person who makes, buys, owns, distributes or transports drugs into or within the state. (And yes, the state government spells marijuana with an H, not a J — a quirk that The Times explained last year.)
This part of the proposal, which would require approval by the State Legislature to become law, seemed particularly noteworthy:
The bill sets a tax stamp rate for marihuana of $3.50 per gram, and of a controlled substance at $200 per gram or fraction thereof, whether pure or dilute. The tax is paid by the dealer, in advance of his or her receipt of the marihuana or controlled substance, through the purchase of tax stamps from the Department of Taxation and Finance (“Department”). Upon receipt of the product, the dealer must affix enough stamps to the packages of marihuana or the controlled substance in order to show the tax has been fully paid.
Of course, drug dealers are unlikely to obtain tax stamps before selling their illegal wares. So the law would require police agencies and district attorney offices to notify the State Taxation and Finance Department about any dealer who has failed to pay the tax. “This requirement does not apply, however, if providing the information would violate a legal prohibition or would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation or prosecution,” the proposal states.
The Spitzer administration projects that the proposal would raise $13 million in the 2008-9 fiscal year and $17 million each year thereafter. According to the Spitzer administration, 29 other states have already passed laws imposing tax liability for controlled substances: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports legalization of marijuana and seeks to move the war on drugs from criminal justice to public health, expressed concern about the proposal in a phone interview. He said:
I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, it seems perfectly reasonable for people to pay on a tax on selling something, whether it’s legal or illegal. On the other hand, these tax stamps seem like a gratuitous piling-on in the drug war. We already in this country and this state lock up people more frequently, and for longer periods of time, on drug charges than almost any other country. We already subject them to civil and criminal asset forfeiture. We already keep them on parole and probation longer than anybody else, thereby effectively reducing their ability to earn legal income once they come out of jail or prison. And we’re already spending tens of billions of dollars locking up people for drug-law violations. If Spitzer really wants to help deal with the budget issue, he should be more aggressive in reforming the Rockefeller-era drug laws.
Mr. Spitzer has, in fact, appointed a commission to examine the Rockefeller-era drug laws, which impose harsh penalties even for nonviolent drug users, but the commission is not expected to make sweeping changes to existing law. The new Spitzer proposal would include a civil penalty for failure to pay the tax, among other enforcement provisions.
In several states where laws imposing tax stamps on drugs have been adopted, the laws have been challenged on the grounds that they violate double jeopardy. In other words, drug dealers who already have served their sentence may not then face a separate punishment in the form of taxes on their drug sales, some courts have ruled. In Tennessee, which imposed a tax on illegal drugs in 2005, the state collected $3.5 million over two years, but an appellate court has found the law to be unconstitutional.
As Mr. Nadelmann pointed out, New York State already has procedures for seizing the assets of drug dealers — the taxes would be on top of any such property seizure.
Taxes on illegal goods actually have a long history in the United States — and the stamps that authorities have printed to be affixed to illegal drugs have been often sought after by collectors and philatelists.