Taxing pot: as crazy as gambling

One thing my 14 years in the state Senate taught me was that the merits of a bill matter less than political influence.

The forces pushing for imposing gambling on our state are back, and they’re pumped. With the great budget pressure, and a well-financed nicely suited gambling lobby, the Granite State is more threatened than ever with historic changes to our identity. We may be about to choose to do great harm to ourselves.

Given that no one dare mention a tax simply based on ability to pay — an absolute inevitability — the perennial proponents of injecting slot machines into New Hampshire are salivating as never before.

It’s a terrible, truly crazy idea. Social and economic costs are huge, benefits dubious at best. Yet, given the untested crop of new legislators, this year it is more likely to become reality than ever.

For academic perspective, let’s compare gambling with another crazy idea, one which has no vested interest pushing it, one that would inarguably cause far less harm and raise more, and more reliable, revenue.

I‘m talking about taking control and taxing heavily a popular out-of-control commodity: marijuana. Why not? Gambling (a sin) has traditionally been illegal too.

In New Hampshire, we pride ourselves on our sense of personal liberty and we
love to tax somebody else. In this context, for the sake of pure academic comparison (what legislator would have the courage to risk total ostracization?), let’s look at both the reliability of revenue and the potential harms between two out-there options.

The structure for taxing cannabis is already in place; it’s how we control and tax that far more harmful substance, alcohol. And, like stating that the emperor has no clothes, no one wants to admit that marijuana is easily available, (check your own community). Marijuana use in the United States has remained fundamentally unchanged in the last decade and a half.

Prohibition, which we have been practicing when it comes to marijuana, never works, except for the crime interests. The retail value of the illicit marijuana market is about $113 billion. Anybody see potential revenue?

Marijuana’s public costs are minimal compared to those of that legal drug alcohol. In 2002 a Canadian Senate committee reported: “Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue.”

After over 40 years of consistent and very widespread use in America, we’re still waiting for evidence of damage to society. We know gambling is very harmful.

Twelve states have decriminalized the stuff. Wouldn’t it be like New Hampshire to be the first to tax it and go for all that money? Isn’t that New Hampshire tradition?

Of course, anything can be abused. One benefit of taxing it would mean getting it under control, limiting consumption, and most importantly keeping it out of the hands of young people. Like the well-functioning system we have now for the drug alcohol.

We know reaping this potential great revenue ain’t gonna happen, but gambling very well may. Why? The large pack of “gaming industry” lobbyists now swarming the halls in Concord. And there’s no lobby for that other crazy idea. That matters a lot in lawmaking.

As for the costs of gambling: The money comes from those least able to pay. Where gambling goes, so does violent crime. Gambling contributes to family violence. Revenue is unreliable, especially if Massachusetts follows. The economic and social costs of gambling outweigh even the inflated, unrealistic lobbyist projections for revenue.

If gambling is legalized, a handful of casino and slot machine interests will benefit, while our towns bear the costs. If the state controlled and taxed cannabis (which it won’t), all revenue would go to the state.

Here’s the point of this purely academic exercise: One of these two out-there proposals is obviously not going to happen. The other unquestionably more damaging option, may very well.

The question is: Are we consciously, willingly about to inflict great harm on ourselves? Let’s hope facts, and not just influence matters.

State senator from 1990 to 2004, Burt Cohen now hosts a radio talk show. His Web site is

Categories: Opinion