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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Irrational Exuberance in Taxing and Regulating Marijuana in Alaska

As the citizens as well as legislators of Colorado were no doubt marveling in astonishment at the seismic $5 million figure for just the first week of legalized marijuana sales, Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell received a petition to legalize recreational use. With over 45,000 signatures, of which only 30,169 are sufficient, the petition correlates with polls in early 2013 revealing that 54 percent of voters support the legalization.[1] As with many other governmental matters, the devil is in the details.

Already, the legislative proposal would levy a $50 tax on each ounce of pot sold. Just imagine if such a tax were levied on each ounce of alcohol sold! Alaska lawmakers may have insisted on the exorbitant tax as part of the proposal from a desire to bilk the consumers as if they were a golden egg (or bowl), or to discourage them on moral or public health grounds from ingesting the particular product. The “crowding out” effect on State taxing power due to more and more federal taxation was certainly a political force behind the support of legislatures in Colorado, Washington, and Alaska starved for revenue.

Yet the hypocrisy practically leaps off the page in Bill Parker’s statement that marijuana is “a substance objectively less harmful than alcohol.”[2] Parker had been a legislator and the Alaska Public Safety Commissioner. Similar hypocrisy infects the comparison with tobacco, in that at least one study in 2012 reports that moderate pot recreational use does not harm the lungs whereas cigarette use does.[3] So the proposal’s prohibition of pot-smoking in public (as already was the case in Colorado) is at the very least irrational, if not reefer madness unplugged. Even the restrictions on drinking alcohol in public may be excessively paranoid, given the passing of the religious taboo against alcohol.


Nevertheless, the proposed prohibition on public smoking of marijuana (without a corresponding ban on tobacco use in outdoor public places on account of the danger posed by second-hand smoke) did not stop Tim Hinterberger, one of the proposal's principal sponsors and a professor of developmental biology at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, from accepting the proposed system of “sensible regulation,” not to mention taxation.[4] “Replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and sensible regulation will bolster Alaska’s economy by creating jobs and generating revenue for the state." The professor cheers the end of the black market in pot without realizing that the proposed $50 tax per ounce would keep the underground alive. 

Generally speaking, the highest tax rate does not necessarily proffer the most tax revenue. One could even say that the more greedy and unreasonable a sales tax, the more the underground market can be expected to thrive. Once unleashed, freedom naturally finds its own way home.

In short, it would seem that irrational exuberance is not limited to Wall Street. Perhaps the real question is why human beings have so much trouble getting over not only prejudice and moralizing, but also overreacting to the unknown. It is as if legislators and regulators assume that regulations cannot be added if needed as unforeseen dangers are uncovered or encountered. The sheer rigidity and overreaction as evinced in the regulation of the recreational use of pot may even point to a subterranean fault in the American psyche. Perhaps at least some of the widespread pot use stems from the natural frustration in being repeatedly slapped in the face by a hypertrophic fear of change and the supporting pathological ignorance that can’t be wrong and presumes itself as fully justified in snatching whatever authority it has.





[i] Hunter Stuart, “Marijuana in Alaska Gets One Step Closer to Full Legalization,” The Huffington Post, January 8, 2014.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Mikaela Conley, “Marijuana Smoke Not as Damaging as Tobacco, Says Study,” ABC News, January 19, 2012.
[iv] Stuart, “Marijuana.”