Use mar­i­juana taxes to boost ad­dic­tion treat­ment, re­search

Albany Times Union - - PERSPECTIVE - richard Brod­sky

The stam­pede to le­gal­ize recre­ational pot has two sides.

One the one hand, the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana has caused im­mense, un­nec­es­sary suf­fer­ing, largely vis­ited on those who use it ca­su­ally and per­son­ally, like other folks use vodka or wine. The hu­man toll in jail time, crim­i­nal record and ac­com­pa­ny­ing stigma has clearly not worked. A so­ci­ety that lux­u­ri­ates in booze and cig­a­rettes has no ra­tio­nal ba­sis for jail­ing pot smok­ers.

On the other hand, eas­ing ac­cess to in­tox­i­cat­ing drugs will cost us dearly. We needn’t re­peat the litany of ar­gu­ments about gate­way drugs, and the pro­phy­lac­tic ef­fect of social dis­ap­proval to re­al­ize that more peo­ple and more kids will be us­ing pot when le­gal­ized.

The po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum be­hind le­gal­iza­tion is enor­mous. It is an ex­pres­sion of gen­er­a­tional change: Younger peo­ple can’t abide the hu­man toll we have ex­acted un­der pot pro­hi­bi­tion. It is a ve­hi­cle for highly de­sir­able social change: It’s about damn time that we ex­punged the crim­i­nal records of small users over past decades and let them live free of a crim­i­nal record. It is an op­por­tu­nity to re­dress past in­equities: It could be an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate wealth that in­cludes com­mu­ni­ties that are of­ten by­passed when such bounty ap­pears.

But there is a dark side to all this which, if not con­strained, will undo all the good in­ten­tions. There is a quiet in­ter­est in many quar­ters in us­ing pot le­gal­iza­tion to raise tax rev­enues.

In most dis­cus­sions this would be per­fectly ap­pro­pri­ate. It is com­mon­place and smart to con­sider the rev­enue ben­e­fits of new pub­lic in­cli­na­tions. But we have made a fetish of de­creas­ing broad-based taxes, like the in­come tax, and taxes on the wealthy, like the es­tate tax, and in­creas­ing “sin” taxes that are re­gres­sive and smack poor and work­ing peo­ple hard­est. Lot­ter­ies and casi­nos came first. Now sports bet­ting has ar­rived. To­bacco taxes keep in­creas­ing, all on the grounds of de­ter­ring un­de­sir­able be­hav­iors. Those who dis­ap­prove of au­to­mo­biles push a re­gres­sive con­ges­tion tax and those who fear cli­mate change want a re­gres­sive car­bon tax.

You can see the same sort of think­ing in­sin­u­at­ing it­self into the pot de­bate. Pot taxes ought to re­build sub­ways, or fund schools, or pay for health care. That is not the way to fig­ure out how to han­dle mass ac­cess to drugs.

The short-term fis­cal at­trac­tive­ness of le­gal mar­i­juana can blind us to the longer-term fis­cal im­pacts. We ought to fig­ure out the true ex­tent of the di­rect and col­lat­eral dam­age about to be caused and ap­ply funds to those prob­lems be­fore we send pot taxes to our fa­vorite pro­gram. For ex­am­ple, no­body re­ally knows how to cure ad­dic­tion. Twelve-step pro­grams abound, ex­pen­sive ther­a­peu­tic ranches abound, drug ther­a­pies abound. Which work? Which get pub­lic funds? Which are the do­main of char­la­tans?

Here’s a mod­est pro­posal. If you want to le­gal­ize pot, then keep the money in the drug abuse arena. Fund schools and mass tran­sit, to be sure, but do it by rais­ing broad-based taxes, not us­ing the nick­els and dimes of recre­ational mar­i­juana users. New York can lead the at­tack on ad­dic­tion and help fig­ure out what will work to end the suf­fer­ing of al­co­holics, drug abusers, and ad­dicts of all kinds. That would be a mitz­vah.

It would also clear our heads and en­sure that the rush to le­gal­iza­tion was about social pol­icy, not the avail­abil­ity of new dol­lars. In the end, pot le­gal­iza­tion bor­ders on the in­evitable. How we go about it is the arena of hard choices. Its im­ple­men­ta­tion will tell us more than we may want to know about what re­ally mat­ters to us.

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