Opinion: No on Measure U: Any tax on medicine, including marijuana, is unconscionable

October 28, 2010

Jonathan Lustig & Jonathan Steigman, San Jose Mercury News

An editorial in the Mercury News (Oct. 14) recommended Measure U, which exploits sick and suffering individuals by allowing taxation of medicinal cannabis in San Jose. The editorial acknowledged the moral validity of the argument against taxing the ill. Unfortunately, it then ignored this consideration and called for a 5 percent tax on medical marijuana. Americans for Safe Access believes any tax on medicine, including marijuana, is unconscionable. Proponents of such a tax show an astonishing lack of compassion for the tens of thousands of medicinal cannabis patients in San Jose who use this age-old botanical to treat crippling physical and psychological conditions. Scientific studies have demonstrated the medical efficacy of cannabis. The variety of ailments for which people find relief is truly staggering and ranges from cancer and epilepsy to attention deficit disorder, anxiety and depression.

A common refrain is that large numbers of patients who have medical marijuana cards are not truly sick and use the substance for recreation. Yet who's to say what a "seriously ill" person looks like? Many people who don't look ill use cannabis for the same conditions for which millions of Americans use Ambien, Ritalin and Zoloft -- with the difference being, of course, that cannabis has never caused a single overdose death in all recorded history.

Regardless, we don't believe taxation of any medication is justified by the red herring argument that nonpatients can find a way to obtain it. We don't tax prescription drugs even though they are widely abused because we understand implicitly that sick people should not be exploited. Abuse exists, but it does not rationalize punishing patients by taxing them.

Opponents argue that cannabis collectives are magnets for crime. Both the Los Angeles and the San Francisco police chiefs have stated outright that there is no correlation between collectives and increased crime. In Los Angeles, which until recently had more than 1,000 collectives, the violent-crime rate is at a 50-year low.

They also suggest that collectives should have to pay a special tax to offset the cost of police investigations into possible crimes at the collectives, including recent robberies. Should banks also be taxed to offset the cost of police investigations? 7-Elevens? Check-cashing centers? Should patients be taxed on prescription drugs to offset police investigations into pharmacy holdups?

There is a misconception that the Measure U tax (which will be in addition to the 9.25 percent sales tax already paid by patients in San Jose) is capped at 10 percent. In fact, Measure U allows taxation at multiple points along the production process. It could tax gross receipts from the planting, cultivation, harvesting, transporting, manufacturing, compounding, converting, processing, preparing, storing, packaging, and wholesale and retail sales of marijuana and ancillary products in the city, whether or not they are carried on for profit.

These possible compounding iterations of up to a 10 percent tax would substantially increase the cost to patients. Insurance companies don't cover medicinal cannabis, so patients already have to shoulder the entire financial burden. As the price of legal medicine increases, so do the odds of patients being forced to patronize the untaxed and unregulated black market -- a nightmare for patients, but a dream come true for Mexican cartels.

Even if Proposition 19 passes on Tuesday to legalize personal use of marijuana, San Jose is unlikely to allow recreational cannabis businesses anytime soon. We therefore conclude that the only result of Measure U will be to increase the tax on medicinal marijuana. We urge all San Jose voters to act with compassion and protect patients from unethical taxation. Vote "no" on Measure U.

JONATHAN LUSTIG is the outreach director for the Silicon Valley Chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medicinal marijuana advocacy group. JONATHAN STEIGMAN is a patient advocate for the organization. They wrote this article for this newspaper.

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