Saying No To A 15-percent Pot Tax

Have any of my 11 regular readers bought a pack of cigarettes lately? I haven’t either. In fact, I never have. I did smoke a pipe, however, and I remember that a pouch of Sir Walter Raleigh or Amphora was well within the budget of a lowly assistant professor.

But last week I found myself standing in line behind a guy at a 7-Eleven store in Waipahu. He asked the lady clerk for a pack of cigarettes. She fetched it. He asked, “How much?” She said, “$10.40.” He didn’t blink. I almost dropped my coffee and Spam musubi.

You read that right: Ten dollars and forty cents for a pack of cigarettes. A couple of my drinking buddies smoke the noxious weed regularly and buy it by the carton at $8 per pack.

But $8 or $10.40, it doesn’t matter. The state coffers will ring up $3 in taxes on each pack, more than $20 million per year.

Ah, sin taxes. Better still, sin and health taxes, dubbed the latter if it helps persuade folks to stop sinning.

So why did the House Judiciary Committee table a bill last week that would have legalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and levied a whopper of a sin tax, 15 percent, on marijuana sales? While admitting he had the votes to get the bill out of committee, Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads intoned, “Leadership has recently informed me that there’s no chance of the bill progressing beyond this committee.”

Forget leadership. What do they know? A few more weeks, some free samples of Maui-grown sensimilla for the honorable ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature – including the leadership – and legalization will sail through that august body and land on the governor’s desk.

And the governor will sign. He knows the state treasury’s needs. An ounce of marijuana, I’m told, cost $500. Most people buy an eighth of an ounce for around $100. That’s $15 or so per sale for the state treasury.

OK, dear reader, I know what you’re thinking: “Legalize the stuff and users will be growing it in their backyards. They’ll be looking up things like how to use a bubbler and contacting the local glassmaker to do a little “favor” for them. No need to buy anything the state can tax, or they’ll get it much cheaper, and the state’s take won’t amount to much.”

True enough, but the governor can then save the costs of incarceration and policing. Legalization is a win-win proposition, almost a no-brainer, but the “leadership” wouldn’t even let it out of committee.

Which brings me to Dr. Josh Green’s second try at getting a one penny per ounce tax on sugary drinks – sports drinks, juice and soda. Last week the Senate Health Committee, which physician Green chairs, reported out SB1085, the soda tax. “In Hawaii, 10 percent of our total expenditures go to treatment of diabetes,” says Green. “We’re in danger of crumbling under the weight of our health problem.”

Hawaii’s diabetes epidemic begins with kids: Overweight kids become overweight adults, ergo diabetes. This year Green has crafted his bill so that its revenues will go to a special fund to combat childhood obesity, and the state’s society of pediatric physicians lined up to testify in support of it.

So your 12-ounce bottle of Coke or Pepsi will cost 12 cents more per can.

That may not wean a generation of kids from drinking soda, but then again, it might.