Massachusetts Marijuana Spoils And The Little Red Hen

Massachusetts Marijuana Spoils And The Little Red Hen

Denying Massachusetts marijuana sales-tax revenue to communities that ban legal cannabis sales is only fair. Which, is why it probably won’t happen — and wouldn’t exactly work, even if it did.

Parables aimed at children aren’t generally accepted as valid bases for systems of governance or the rationale behind key decisions affecting millions of people. (When choosing intellectual foundations, here in America we rely on morality tales aimed at adults.)

Yet in the push in Massachusetts to deny marijuana sales-tax proceeds to the more than 100 cities and towns that have chosen to ban recreational cannabis sales, the lesson of the Little Red Hen is happily (and seriously) repeated.

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Why should places that at almost every turn have tried to halt marijuana legalization in its tracks — and, failing that, attempting the same blockade of legal marijuana commerce — enjoy any of its proceeds?

Massachusetts’s plan to divide the legalization spoils currently looks like this: There’s a 17 percent “effective tax” on commercial pot, according to the Boston Globe. State sales taxes go to the state and are absorbed into the general budget. Not so with the two local cuts. Three percent of retail sales and 3 percent of a locally-based marijuana company’s revenue stay with a local government, provided they afford a place for legitimate weed businesses.

This provides some incentive to allow marijuana firms to operate in your community. But some Boston-area cannabis activists and entrepreneurs want to go even further and deny marijuana-related money to places that deny a place for commercial marijuana.

They plan to introduce legislation in January that would (somehow, in some as-yet undefined; little key details like this are just that, crucial details) reduce each weed-banning localities’ share of state-collected Massachusetts marijuana sales taxes.

As logic goes, it’s hard to beat. (That’s the simple brilliance of schoolyard philosophy at work.) It’s only fair. It’s hard to find a reason why parties who share none of the supposed burden and perform none of the work should enjoy the same benefits as those that do. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat” is in fact the earliest working political theory in English-speaking America.

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But as analogies go, it’s not perfect.

First, nowhere in the Red Hen’s patient efforts to convince the other farm animals to join in and assist in her bread-baking labors was she met with outright sabotage or well-organized and well-funded anti-bread campaigns — only to be asked for a slice of toast from someone heretofore gluten-averse as soon as she opened the oven door.

In her world, her obstacles are merely sloth and greed, not hostility. Cannabis enjoyed no such casual indifference.

Only 52 percent of Massachusetts voters backed Question 4, the ballot initiative that legalized recreational cannabis for all adults 21 and over in the state last November. Opponents included nearly all of the state’s political establishment, including Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

So desperate were the state’s deciders to beat legalization that they were happy to lie, and lie wildly and irresponsibly: House Speaker Robert DeLeo once claimed that there was a clear link between casual marijuana use and opiate dependency, despite clear scientific evidence that cannabis availability reduces opiate abuse and overdose deaths.

It didn’t work, and it doesn’t matter. These same fellows now get to figure out how to spend an extra $150 million a year, the estimated sales-tax haul by 2020 from the Massachusetts marijuana market.

And these are some the same fellows who will be asked to approve a plan in the Legislature to deny their areas tax money if those same areas also banned marijuana.

What lawmaker would do that? That’s one clear problem to overcome. Another is logistical: Sifting through the state budget, figuring out how much each area is "owed" solely from Massachusetts marijuana money, then reducing each area's payout accordingly. Yet another is that there’s no precedent for this, anywhere.

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Advocates point to Oregon and California as examples of places where localities pay a price for banning weed. Baked into those states’ legalization laws are provisions denying some money gleaned from legalization from locales that strongarm marijuana businesses — emphasis on “some.”

In Oregon, most of the proceeds from legalization are earmarked for schools, who get the cash no matter what local leaders choose to do. The rest — less than $8 million a year, or $3 per person — isn't much to make a difference.

In California, cities and counties that ban marijuana businesses are ineligible for some grant funding — but they will still enjoy funding from state sales taxes. And these are also grants that are specifically meant to help “implement” legalization — meaning, unlike the Red Hen's neighbors in the barnyard, California cities without a single cannabis retail outlet will still get to pay their cops and pave their roads with the money from places with a booming weed retail sector.

What there is precedent for, as the Globe noted, is similar inequality. Take the state Lottery. Tickets for the lottery, a key source of state funding, are disproportionately sold in poor and working-class areas. Yet when it comes time to divide up the proceeds, they’re divided “equally,” meaning richer areas take in more than their people put in. (These richer areas, with their higher property taxes, also enjoy better schools and ritzier civic improvements.)

It’s not fair. But that’s simply how it works. That’s the way it is: The brutal logic of resignation to life’s slings and arrows learned in the workplace, replacing the utopian ideals of youth. Unless the Massachusetts marijuana-legalization law is drastically rewritten as to direct the majority of money to localities and not to the state, this is how it will be.

To do that would require prying money from some of the same hands that tried to prevent that money from appearing in the first place. That sounds fair — but that’s not the principle driving most lawmaking in America.