03.03.2016
policy

Why Are Sick People Paying Tax Penalties for Medical Marijuana?

Big Pharma would never stand for this double-tax tap.

As if sick people don’t already have enough to deal with, a California lawmaker is proposing an over-the-top tax on a medicine many of them rely on.

Democratic Sen. Mike McGuire of Sonoma County has put forth a bill that would levy a 15 percent tax on medical pot in addition to sales taxes local jurisdictions and the state already impose.

The city of Los Angeles adds a 5 percent tax to the 7.5 percent tax the state charges on every medical marijuana sale. If McGuire’s measure passes, L.A. patients can expect to pay a 27.5 percent sales tax on their dispensary purchases. Yes, a $200 ounce of Blue Dream could end up costing more than $250. Yikes!

Image via Dank Depot

A double standard is layered into the subtext of the proposal to double tax medical cannabis: Marijuana is not as legitimate a medicine as are prescription drugs.

State Senator McGuire emphasizes that pharmaceuticals, which aren’t taxed, are regulated by the federal government, whereas doctors can only recommend medical pot to their patients.

“I’m not saying it’s right, but there has to be a clear distinction,” he told the Sacramento Bee.

McGuire is proposing that a cancer patient, saddled with debt from medical bills, should pay the same price for a plant providing much-needed relief as a stoner looking to veg out watching Cheech and Chong movies.

If a distinction needs to be drawn, it's not between prescription drugs and medical cannabis, as McGuire suggests, but between medical and recreational marijuana.

For example, pro-pot organizations like NORML do not oppose taxing retail marijuana; however, they find a high tax on medical cannabis inappropriate.

Americans for Safe Access writes, “Adding an additional 15 percent to the cost of medical cannabis, which is not covered by insurance, will be an economic hardship for legal patients—especially those who are already economically vulnerable.”

McGuire is proposing that a cancer patient, saddled with debt from medical bills, should pay the same price for a plant providing much-needed relief as a stoner looking to veg out watching Cheech and Chong movies.

McGuire points to an increase in Colorado's number of medical marijuana patients following the 2012 legalization of recreational pot, which the state’s citizens voted to tax at a higher rate than medical. Presumably, Colorado's add-on medical patients are actually recreational users scheming to shirk the higher tax rate.

Research published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, however, shows that 60 percent of California’s medical cannabis patients are genuinely in need of the drug.

Image via NoHoDamon

Should the minority of users who exploit the law dictate policy?

To McGuire’s credit, he probably didn’t propose a crazy-high tax on medical cannabis to make patients already suffering suffer some more. Money was a major motivator.

California’s annual medical marijuana sales are estimated to surpass $1 billion. If McGuire’s bill passes, it has the potential to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue to the state. A large chunk of this money will go to communities affected by cultivation.

Image via Damian Gadal

“It’s time to help fund the areas that are most affected by cultivation," says McGuire, "those communities that have long been paying the price of the negative effects of cultivation brought on by the ‘bad actors’ who destroy the environment and bring in crime.”

This is all well and good, except for one thing: Why should patients carry the burden of compensating communities affected by irresponsible cultivation and crime when the patients are culpable for neither?

“There are other ways to pay for these costs,” writes Americans for Safe Access on a petition opposing McGuire’s bill. “Applicants for state medical cannabis licenses are already required to pay all of the costs of licensing, and cultivators who violate environmental laws are already penalized to cover the cost of clean up.”

"I don’t know what I’m gonna do if this law passes,” she says. “I honestly don’t want to have to get back on pain meds.”

If anything, it’s not the tax on medical marijuana that should increase, but the fines on people breaking laws.

A patient in a West L.A. dispensary who says she purchases an eighth of indica about every other week to help alleviate her fibromyalgia symptoms is worried.

“Damn, I can barely afford my medicine now. I don’t know what I’m gonna do if this law passes,” she says. “I honestly don’t want to have to get back on pain meds.”

But medical marijuana patients shouldn’t fret just yet. For McGuire’s bill to become law, it will require approval from two-thirds of the state legislature, which could be difficult. Republicans are generally against raising taxes.

It’s the idea that a tax like this would be proposed in the first place that’s so disturbing. 

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