Recently it was announced that Colorado’s overwhelmingly successful venture into legalizing recreational marijuana has generated so much tax revenue, that the people are owed a refund.
Before I condemn them on this tax, I must at least give them all due credit for having a clause in their state constitution that limits the amount of tax revenue that Colorado is allowed to collect before it must refund a portion to the people. It’s referred to as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TaBOR), and it’s a very pro-liberty thing to do.
Sadly, Colorado Republicans and Democrats alike are now upset they may have to give some of this money back however. I understand the Democrats being upset, they’ve never met a taxpayer dollar they didn’t genuinely believe they could spend better than the person who earned it. But it’s sad that the Colorado Republicans, the party that’s supposed to be about limited government, are somehow upset with this too.
Forget all of that though, because there is a much deeper issue here. This Colorado legal-pot situation is not as libertarian-friendly as one might think.
Colorado was smart enough to embrace the science that shows that marijuana is a fairly benign drug that is often less risky in its consumption than alcohol. They were also non-hypocritical enough to know that allowing alcohol while not allowing marijuana made little sense—kudos to them on both counts. But that’s where the liberty segment of their new pot-friendly legislation ends.
Sadly, politicians love new revenue streams more than I love my mom. Because the legislators in Colorado decided that instead of just giving people more freedom to choose what they put in their body, they would give them a way to do it prosecution-free, if and only if, they paid an additional tax over and above the normal sales tax, which exceeds 25% when all of them are added together.
Knowing this would generate a significant amount of tax revenue was certainly part of the equation, if not the impetus for legalization, when the one and only reason should have been that in a free country (or state in this case), it should have never been illegal in the first place.
What Colorado is essentially doing is no different from the sugary drink tax in Berkeley, California, cigarette taxes across the country, or any other tax on a product over and above the standard sales tax. They are using the tax system to encourage behavior like a backwards carrot on a stick. No rights are being protected, nor is any governmental service being offered.
As someone who supports a consumption tax system like the FairTax.org proposal, one might think that I and other libertarians would support a marijuana tax, but it’s very anti-libertarian on multiple fronts.
When sin taxes such as these are passed, it assumes that government has an interest in what you do to yourself and should penalize you for what they have determined is bad behavior. But government’s duty is to protect you from others who would harm you, not from yourself. They have no right to tell you how to live your life or be the arbiter of what is good behavior. Are you comfortable letting them tell you what shows you should watch or what kind of mate you should choose?
The reason to support a consumption tax is that it’s effectively a fee for services rendered. If government builds infrastructure, and enforces contracts between enterprises which allow all of these products to freely come to market, it’s a fair way to charge people for that government service. But what service is Colorado providing for the marijuana tax?
For instance, I can fairly argue it’s okay to add a diesel/gasoline tax, because that money then pays for roads. You’re being charged a fee for services rendered. However, there is no additional service Colorado is providing with their multitude of tacked on taxes to marijuana, it’s simply a revenue stream that goes into the state’s general fund, and the oh-so-common “It will go towards helping schools” argument is also part of the equation.
I’ll set aside my argument that there shouldn’t be public schools in the first place, but why exactly is a pot smoker disproportionately responsible for educating Colorado children or paying for other non pot-related issues?
If we love liberty, we should never support a tax that cannot be directly attributed to the item being taxed as a fee for a service government is providing. With government, we are often forced to accept compromise to appease the statist-minded voters and politicians, and I’m sure Colorado’s marijuana tax is no different, but we are most certainly not to a point where we can call Colorado’s legal marijuana system a victory for libertarianism.
It’s no more of a victory than if a football team were losing 70-0 and in the closing seconds scored a field goal to avoid getting blown out. Sure it feels good to put points on the board, but you still lost in the end.