Monday, February 18, 2008

Spitzer's "Crack Tax" Sounds Goofy, But Can We Do Worse?

The latest odd notion from an elected official in the War on Drugs has ruffled fur across the spectrum. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, facing a $4.4 billion budget shortfall, has proposed levying a tax on drug dealers' illegal stashes.

Taxing something illegal does entail a certain absurdity. But the War on Drugs reached absurd proportions many years ago. Given the broader history, I'm not sure why this scheme has gotten all these raspberries, from so many sides.

The bigger picture is that the War on Drugs is the domestic Vietnam. It's a war that was lost many years ago, but the main combatants won't surrender. The saddest aspect has been the failure to recognize fundamental human nature: Sobriety seems, in the final analysis, just a bit overrated. Successful societies recognize this and modestly go about finding ways to manage things, keeping most people sober for crucial work, and refraining from ill-fated moral crusades.

On to the proposal. The Washington Post reports that:

The new tax would apply to cocaine, heroin and marijuana, and could be paid with pre-bought "tax stamps" affixed to the bags of dope.

It didn't take WaPo long to lapse into borderline editorializing. In the second paragraph of the online story, the reporter wrote:

Some critics in the legislature are asking what the governor has been smoking.

Yes, there are plenty of critics of this idea, so let's go over the spectrum.


Republican state Sen. Martin J. Golden was reported as the wag who dubbed the proposal "the crack tax." WaPo went on to report: Some opponents said that because cocaine and weed would be subject to the new levies, it should more aptly be called "the crack-pot tax."

The conservative side of the aisle also says this would lend a perverse legitimacy to illegal drugs. Making them taxable would have them seem comparable to the legally condoned vices of alcohol and tobacco.

And the criticism isn't limited to Republican adversaries of Democrat Spitzer. The WaPo report goes on:

On the other side of the aisle, some Democrats, too, were stunned by the plan. "My initial instinct is: I don't understand it," said Bill Perkins, a state senator from Harlem. "Most of the dealers I'm familiar with are petty crack dealers -- most of them are crackheads. They are broke, to say the least. I just don't understand how you impose a tax" on broke crackheads, he said.

Taxing illegal drugs is more widespread than is generally known. At least 21 states have some form of tax for illicit drugs, although some of those laws have been challenged in courts, and others have fallen into disuse. Almost all the remaining drug-tax laws are used mainly by local law enforcement agencies as a way to seize drug money and fund counter-narcotics operations.

The controversial idea grew out of the efforts to fight bootleggers such as Al Capone during Prohibition -- going after the bootleggers for unpaid taxes often required a lighter burden of proof than a criminal prosecution. Taxing illicit drugs gained popularity during the 1980s and early 1990s, when prosecutors and law enforcement authorities were pushing for mandatory sentences and other measures to signal a crackdown on drugs and drug use.

By the way, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws thinks it's a dumb notion, too. WaPo said that Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, called it "a wacky idea. It's a quintessential example of the absurdity of the war on some drugs."

How could this actually work? After the arrests: More from WaPo:

Most states with the law sell stamps that drug dealers can buy in advance, like what Spitzer is proposing. Because no drug dealers are known to buy the stamps and pay their tax in advance, the tax is usually levied after they are caught.

Some states have designed distinctive drug stamps, often depicting a marijuana leaf. Nebraska's drug stamp depicts a rolled joint crossed with a syringe in front of a skull and what appears to be a headstone, with the label "R.I.P."

Most of the folks who buy these stamps up Nebraska way are said to be likely stamp collectors.

Yeah, it really seems like a pretty silly idea. But it's just one more in a long line of them.

The War on Drugs has been going on, officially, since around 1970. I recall being subjected to a half-year of propaganda for an entire class period during high school; and the semester ended with perhaps the smartest kid at our school, a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, getting busted for possession of a joint.

The '70s era seems like ancient history to many, a time when pot was the substance of choice and few had heard of anything resembling crack cocaine. The latter took hold of the streets of America in the '80s, and attitudes understandably changed. But the draconian response did perhaps more long-term damage than good.

This is from the Alaska Justice Forum, Spring 2000:

The “war on drugs” has led to an enormous increase in both the numbers and percentages of inmates in the federal system incarcerated primarily for drug offenses ...

The inmate population sentenced for drug offenses is now almost 60 per cent of the total federal inmate population. Between 1985 and 1998 the number of federal inmates sentenced for drug charges grew by nearly 500 per cent.

Here's more from

State prisons held a total of 1,274,600 inmates on all charges at yearend 2004. In absolute numbers an estimated 633,700 inmates in State prison at yearend 2004 (the latest year for which offense data is available) were held for violent offenses: 151,500 for murder, 178,900 for robbery, 129,400 for assault, and 153,800 for rape and other sexual assaults. In addition, 265,600 inmates were held for property offenses, 249,400 for drug offenses, and 88,900 for public-order offenses.

Source: Sabol, William J., PhD, Couture, Heather, and Harrison, Paige M., Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2006 (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, December 2007), NCJ219416, p. 24, Appendix Table 9.

Federal prisons were estimated to hold 176,268 sentenced inmates as of Sept. 30, 2006. Of these, 16,507 were incarcerated for violent offenses, including 2,923 for homicide, 9,645 for robbery, and 3,939 for other violent crimes. In addition, 10,015 inmates were serving time for property crimes, including 519 for burglary, 6,437 for fraud, and 3,059 for other property offenses. A total of 93,751 were incarcerated for drug offenses. Also, 54,336 were incarcerated for public-order offenses, incluging 19,496 for immigration offenses and 24,298 for weapons offenses.

Source: Sabol, William J., PhD, Couture, Heather, and Harrison, Paige M., Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2006 (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, December 2007), NCJ219416, p. 26, Appendix Table 13.

The War on Drugs, as it has been fought for about 38 years, has overcrowded prisons and jails at all levels; raised taxes enough to seriously burden most Americans; and has actually done relatively little to stem the use of illegal drugs, considering the penalties some can face. If we wanted to get really draconian, I suppose we could start executing drug dealers as they do in certain Mideast countries, most notably Saudi Arabia. And maybe we could start severing the hands of thieves while we're at it.

But if I wanted solutions like that, I would have emigrated long ago. This is the U.S., and, last time I checked, we had a Bill of Rights.

Spitzer's idea seems no sillier than others we've been hearing for going on four decades. At least in his scheme, mainstream society might actually collect a bit of quid from the underground economy.

There's a bottom line: People like to get high. They have always liked to get high. They have been getting high, on one substance or another, since antiquity. Granted, this is an indulgence that functioning societies the world over have always found it necessary to control. People cannot be permitted to perform certain tasks while high -- and there are certain substances that are far worse than others, and they require sterner measures to achieve the desired control.

But, "a drug-free society," as was trumpeted in public-service ads during the '80s, is a Puritan fantasy. There will never be one. Anywhere. Ever. The rational response to a social problem from this, when it presents itself, is management -- drug education, humane treatment for addicts, alternatives to incarceration, and yes -- even legalization of certain substances. The 18th Amendment (prohibition of alcohol) in the U.S. was a joke, and after about 14 years of it, even people in predominantly Mormon Utah were forced to admit that. They were the last required state to ratify repeal. Tobacco is becoming increasingly taboo in mainstream life, but I wouldn't predict that it will ever go away. (How will I score my occasional Punch Rothchild cigars?)

Marijuana, I admit to having had considerable experience with, many years ago. In 1978, I wouldn't have believed anyone who told me the stuff would still be illegal the way it is now, 30 years later. It's not a harmless drug -- there are none of those, not even pharmaceuticals. But we have enough collective societal experience with this substance now to know that it's probably no worse than too much Jagermeister. It's a matter of how it's used.

But sadly, irrational beliefs can linger for generations. (The Republican Party has built its very profitable chain of stores on that fact.)

Anyway, when you find yourself deep in a hole, the best strategy seems to be to stop digging. Spitzer's idea doesn't seem any sillier than what we've been doing for decades. It's time to rethink the whole thing. At least he seems to be thinking -- not enough, but just a bit -- outside a very constricting box.

Crossposted at Manifesto Joe.