Editorial: Legalize – and tax – marijuana

Published: 8/7/2016 12:05:09 AM

An income tax proposal continues to be a political kiss of death in New Hampshire, and no current gubernatorial candidate has proposed one. That almost certainly means more years of muddling along with a regressive tax system, insufficient revenue, underfunded schools, neglected responsibilities and all the other ills of a budget that relies on robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The only interesting revenue proposal to come from a gubernatorial candidate so far was put on the table by former Portsmouth mayor and Democratic candidate for governor Steve Marchand. He wants to see marijuana legalized and taxed. He estimates that would raise $30 million per year, which could be used to restore school building aid and help fund education.

Marchand would raise another $30 million by increasing the Business Profits Tax. That’s a wrongheaded and counterproductive idea with no chance of passage. But his tax on marijuana should be studied.

A bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Michael Brewster of Barnstead called for doing just that, but it was declared inexpedient to legislate earlier this year.

New Hampshire, the first state to establish a lottery and a pioneer in opening liquor stores in interstate rest areas, will not lead the charge to tax marijuana.

Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana by adults and five more, including Vermont and Massachusetts, will vote on whether to do so this fall.

Colorado and Washington already do so, and so far they’ve raised about double the revenue they expected. New Hampshire, should it legalize sales, will do what it always does: Locate outlets on its borders and structure pricing to maximize sales to nonresidents.

Legalization would be a tough sell and, given the drug’s harmful effect on the developing brains of youth, would have to be tightly regulated. But as Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed out recently in arguing for legalization and taxation, the young already have easy access to marijuana of unknown potency at affordable prices.

Often, if not typically, marijuana is purchased from dealers who also offer other illicit wares, including amphetamines, pyschedelics and even hard drugs. They have an incentive to urge customers to upgrade, and purchasing any of the drugs makes the buyer a criminal. That, we believe, is the most important way marijuana can function as a gateway drug.

Legalize marijuana use and move its sale into state stores, and several things will happen. Buyers won’t become criminals and burden the justice system. The gateway effect will be minimized. Criminals, including drug gangs, will be denied a big portion of their revenue and easy access to customers. That alone is a strong argument in favor of legalization.

Marijuana is a multi-billion-dollar industry, one that is growing rapidly. As the state dominoes fall, the federal government will rethink the way it classifies the drug.

Already, Microsoft has created software to allow the easy tracking and accounting of marijuana sales, and eventually the federal prohibition on accepting funds from marijuana transactions will be lifted.

It’s too soon to give an unqualified thumbs up to marijuana legalization but not too soon to formally study the idea and track the outcome in other states.

Should the change be made, the revenue raised, even if it’s twice Marchand’s estimate, won’t be enough to put an end to New Hampshire’s structural deficit. But it might be enough to help the state meet its responsibility to its students, poor, disabled and mentally ill.

Solving the problem long term will take what no politician in recent years has dared to propose: an income tax.

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