A state legislator told the Jindal administration that he is not ready to go the way of Washington state and Colorado by asking voters to legalize and tax marijuana.
Instead, state Sen. Dan Claitor said, he thinks the Jindal administration is missing the opportunity to generate revenue through a decades-old law that attempts to collect taxes from the drug trade through a different angle.
A law on Louisiana’s books since the 1990s requires marijuana dealers to pay taxes on their product by buying stamps from the state revenue department or face seizure of their valuables if they are arrested.
However, little money is flowing to the state from the law, prompting Claitor, once an assistant district attorney in New Orleans, to tell the Jindal administration to either pursue the tax or get rid of it.
Other states are asking voters to legalize marijuana and tax it as a way to generate revenue. Louisiana’s approach is less direct. The state sells tax stamps and asks no questions about whether the buyer is a drug dealer or a novelty collector.
During a meeting of the Revenue Study Commission, Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, interrupted a discussion on tobacco- and alcohol-related tax breaks to ask what the state is doing to collect taxes on marijuana sales in Louisiana.
“I know there’s a lot of marijuana going through the system,” said Claitor, whose district covers much of south Baton Rouge.
Marijuana dealers are supposed to pay taxes for their illegal trade by purchasing stamps from the state revenue department. Alternatively, collection can be made when an arrest or seizure occurs, triggering reports to be filed and an assessment established.
Jason Decuir, an attorney for the revenue department, said he has not seen any assessments since he joined the agency last year.
“We essentially tell the criminal system, you guys, that’s your bailiwick,” Claitor said. “But we have the law on the books. It seems as though we ought to be making some effort to collect it.”
He noted that some areas of the country are legalizing marijuana and taxing it.
Decuir said he has looked at Louisiana’s law and determined there often are no assets to seize.
Claitor, who is a lawyer, disagreed.
“There’s cash that is seized,” he said. “I used to prosecute. It ends up going into the district attorney’s till as opposed to going to the state of Louisiana.”
Louisiana’s tax, established in the 1990s, requires dealers to pay $3.50 in taxes for each gram of marijuana.
The idea behind the law was to require dealers to buy tax stamps from the state revenue department, allowing law enforcement to seize their homes, cars and other valuables when they are caught with unstamped drugs.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, the state collected $26,187 in marijuana and controlled substance taxes. Collections dropped to $505.53 the following year.
Presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s platform includes a push to legalize marijuana. Johnson, a Libertarian, said the criminalization of drugs is increasing incarceration rates and gang violence.
Earlier this year, Rhode Island decriminalized marijuana possession and lowered the fine from $500 to $150, putting violations on scale with a parking ticket.
Voters in Colorado and Washington state will decide in November whether to legalize and tax marijuana. Leading Republicans are backing the measures even though federal law bans marijuana use. A number of states allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is airing a commercial in Colorado telling voters that a tax would create income for schools instead of drug cartels.
Claitor said he is not advocating going in the same direction as Colorado or Rhode Island. He told revenue department officials that they should pursue collecting Louisiana’s marijuana tax or seek to purge the law from the books.
After Claitor finished questioning the revenue department, state Rep. Joel Robideaux joked that he wasn’t sure what the next topic was.
“I forgot what we were doing,” said Robideaux, R-Lafayette. “It must be those cookies that Henry brought.”
State Rep. Henry Burns, R-Haughton, owns a bakery and often brings treats for legislators.