Last year the legislature decriminalized marijuana, this year they’re thinking about allowing its medicinal use. One lawmaker is wondering why the state’s not enforcing a tax on it.
There’s been a law on the books allowing a tax on marijuana and other illegal drugs since 1991. On Friday the Planning and Development Committee will consider a bill by Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R- Southbury, that would encourage local police to enforce the tax by sending a portion of the revenue back to their town.
Currently, marijuana is taxed at $3.50 a gram but it’s rarely enforced after arrests and very few people voluntarily pay taxes on illegal substances.
According to the Department of Revenue Services the tax on illegal drugs brought in $33,609 last year. The department estimates that many of the people buying the tax stamps used to impose the tax are actually stamp collectors looking to round out their collections.
And rather than tax drug dealers, police tend to look for revenue by seizing their assets after they’re convicted.
O’Neill said given last year’s law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and this year’s debate over its medicinal use, it’s time to start collecting the tax.
“To the extent that more and more there’s this notion it should be treated like cigarettes or alcohol or something, well then collecting the tax on it should happen more aggressively too,” he said.
Though the bill is still being drafted, O’Neill said at least 50 percent of the revenue should go back to municipalities. Local police departments do most of the work putting drug cases together, he said. And if their towns stand to benefit from the tax, police will be more inclined to enforce it, he said.
But according to DRS, imposing the tax is more effort than it’s worth. The department must file paperwork over a long period of time to collect the tax through wage withholding after someone is released from prison.
“It’s a lot of work for not a lot of return,” spokeswoman Sarah Kaufman said.
Revenue Services Commissioner Kevin Sullivan said the tax was envisioned as a law enforcement tool, not a revenue generator.
“There’s really nothing much to share,” he said in a statement. “For most narcotics busts, which is when the taxable transactions become known, the city or town has and uses the much better remedy of asset seizure and forfeiture incident to arrest and prosecution. The tax is only involved when that does not happen.”
But O’Neill said that’s not necessarily the case. In the early 1990s, when several states passed similar legislation, some were successful in generating as much as a million dollars in revenue, he said.
Those were states like Kansas and Nebraska where the cost of living is much lower than Connecticut. Here everything costs more so there’s the potential for a lot more revenue, he said.
“These are not poor communities. We’re not talking about downtown Bridgeport. We’re talking about people who are dealing drugs, or in possession of large quantities of drugs, who own substantial assets,” he said.
O’Neill is hoping the potential new revenue stream will have local cops garnering evidence for the state, who can put liens on some of those assets to recover the tax.
“For some reason DRS has just never wanted to pursue this. But I think if local law enforcement start putting the cases together and saying, ‘hey, here’s the evidence you need to collect the tax,’ it might induce DRS if it’s kind of gift wrapped for them,” he said.