July 16: What's Jen Clicking on Between Newscasts?

A daunting $1 tax in 1937 led to the criminalization of marijuana. How ironic is it that a potential tax today could push lawmakers to want to legalize it?

If you're buying something in California, you're paying sales tax, right?  Why should medical marijuana be any different?  I saw this story on NBCLA.com today about Los Angeles city leaders exploring a municipal tax on medical marijuana, and I wondered why it wasn't taxed already, or if it already IS and they're looking to add an additional tax, like you see on cigarettes or gasoline.

I'm coming in late to this whole controversy about legalizing marijuana, mostly because it's just that: a controversy.  Until some real solid legalization or taxation legislation comes up that makes it ... ah, "front burner," if you will, it's not really within my realm of news.  Argue 'til you're blue in the face about anything you want, but I won't start caring about the details until they could, potentially, matter somehow.

That time could be coming.  It seems there is more of a legalization rumbling lately, and it will, I believe, gain momentum the way same-sex marriage has in California.  Sure, measures to legalize it may fail, but as time goes on and younger people come of age, they fail by a smaller and smaller margin.  So, "whether you like it or not," San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom may have a point.  It may only be a matter of time.

And in these tough financial times, it seems to many of the people in charge that it's a fine line worth sticking a toe over.  Run the risk of being villified as the lawmaker championing legalized marijuana, because it may be worth the accolades for coming up with billions of dollars our local governments need.

The Los Angeles City Council members who are on that fine line right now are Janice Hahn, Dennis Zine, and Bill Rosendahl.  The NBCLA.com story quotes Hahn and Zine:

"In this current economic crisis, we need to get creative about how to raise funds," Hahn said. "A tax on medical marijuana could enable the city to continue providing services we might otherwise have to cut."


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Zine added, "Part of becoming a legitimate business in the city of Los Angeles means supporting local government by paying a fair share of municipal taxes."

They're looking north, to my hometown the city of Oakland, which will vote next week on a ballot measure that would put a 1.8 percent tax on medical marijuana sold there.  "Proponents of Measure F claimed Oakland's four licensed dispensaries had total gross receipts of $19.6 million last year," the story says; "By their calculation, the new tax -- if approved -- could provide the city with as much as $294,000 in additional revenue."

And guess what, Los Angeles has 100 times as many dispensaries than Oakland does.  It's high time we took advantage of that.  (Sorry for that editorializing; I had to put it that way in order to make the bad pun work right there.)

As I was clicking around looking for exactly when and how the buds of hemp plants became illegal in the United States, I stumbled upon a little known detail of history that made me take a deep breath (I didn't say inhale) and pause a little.  Marijuana started down a road toward criminalization by way of a tax that no one paid (that was the illegal part.)  How ironic is it that today, a tax could actually start it on the road back the other direction?

In 1937, something called the "Marihuana Tax Act" (that's how they spelled it back then)  was the first step down the path toward criminalization of pot.  Wikipedia says "the Act did not itself criminalize the possession or usage of hemp, marijuana or cannabis, but levied a tax equaling roughly one dollar on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis, hemp or marijuana. The Act did include penalty provisions and a complex Regulation 1 codifying the elaborate rules of enforcement to which marijuana, cannabis, or hemp handlers were subject. Violation of these procedures could result in a fine of up to $2000 and five years' imprisonment.

Back in the day, marijuana was legal as a cigarette is today, and alcohol was what was banned, during Prohibition from 1919-1933.  Everything you Google on how marijuana actually became illegal brings up these web pages with incredibly slanted agendas, like this one called DrugWarRant.com.  It says "since drugs could not be outlawed at the federal level, the decision was made to use federal taxes as a way around the restriction. In the Harrison Act, legal uses of opiates and cocaine were taxed (supposedly as a revenue need by the federal government, which is the only way it would hold up in the courts), and those who didn't follow the law found themselves in trouble with the treasury department."

Now that the Treasury Department is in dire straits, the new study out yesterday that estimates California could collect $1.4 billion in taxes every year from legalized marijuana (not just the medical marijuana clinics) is getting some notice as well.  And no, this isn't some totally biased study from High Times -- this one was done by the California State Board of Equalization.

Well, as California's credit rating is one tick above junk status, legal drugs like alchohol and tobacco are heavily taxed, and the state is issuing IOUs while fighting over which programs are going to be cut back or killed altogether ... well, you'd have to be high not to consider every option.

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