What if we taxed weed to pay for reparations?

On December 1, 2019, Michigan legalized recreational marijuana. That day, I saw a line that stretched at least two city blocks filled with people waiting to buy. It was one of the most diverse (racially, economically, Kid-Rock-meets-Bernie-Sanders-y) crowds I could remember seeing in Ann Arbor since the city’s last Hash Bash. Ann Arbor’s dispensaries sold out of product for the next several days after it was legalized.   

Weed has always been practically, if not actually, legal for white, relatively affluent people like me. But I never stood around in the freezing cold for an hour to get it while listening to people tell stories about how their dad had to come bail them out after they were caught possessing in the 70s.

In Michigan, the tax on weed is 16%—a 10% excise tax on adult-use products and a 6% sales tax. In the first week alone, Michigan generated $270,000 in tax revenue off weed sales, and the state is projecting to rake in around $150 million per year starting in 2021. And that money goes to some good causes: researching the medical benefits of marijuana, funding schools, improving roads, and putting money in state and local coffers. And some states are taxing weed even more heavily than Michigan is, although they might start lowering taxes to avoid turning the weed enthusiasts of today into the Grover Nug-quists of tomorrow.

But there’s a better use of this money: reparations. Let’s call this “The Case for Reeferdations.” Actually, don’t, but thanks for considering it. 

The War on Drugs has resulted in profoundly unequal outcomes along racial lines. As Michelle Alexander, author of (required reading, or at least required referencing) The New Jim Crow put it, “Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.” And mass incarceration is just one recent entry in the history of American racism that stretches back to our original sin. Racist and classist drug policing left deep wounds everywhere from housing to the right to vote, and it’s time to start paying up—and to use funds from marijuana legalization to do so. 

This isn’t a new idea. Evanston, Illinois has proposed using its weed revenue for race-based reparations in the form of direct payments for its residents to purchase homes or pursue higher education, two areas where the effects of racism remain particularly salient. And governments experimenting with reparations to correct past harms is not unprecedented. Chicago, for example, created a $5.5 million fund for victims of police torture, while the U.S. issued a formal apology and $20,000 in compensation to people of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps.

There are legitimate, salient reasons to not do this. For one, using marijuana tax revenues for race-based reparations could further exacerbate the racialization of drug use. And reparations raise extremelythorny and hardtoresolveissues. But, as a counterpoint, the Redfordations program in Watchmen seemed to be working out… about as well as you could expect in America? 

Estimates vary, but it’s not crazy to say that legal marijuana will be generating $30 billion per year in sales in the near future. That’s more than the NFL’s revenue—a product that actually is dangerous. At a 5% tax rate devoted to our hypothetical reeferdations, we’d be generating around $1.5 billion per year. 

What could we do with this money? Far smarter people have thought much harder about this than me. But here are just the first five ideas that come to mind: 

  • Appropriate the $12 million needed, under H.R.40, “to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.” Immediately. 
  • Direct payments. Cost estimates vary, and even our hefty $1.5 billion/year is nowhere close to the (very roughly) $400 billion to $2.6 trillion owed to make economic amends for past injustices. But it never hurts to start, and depending on how trickly your economic views are, maybe a rising economic tide could lift all boats. 
  • Make more targeted direct payments. Perhaps in the form of pension payments to low-level drug offenders caught up in the war on drugs. Or maybe we take that money and use it to equalize the amount of school spending per student throughout the nation. 
  • Contribute to Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and any other legal organization combating racial inequity in the legal system. Hiring more public defenders wouldn’t hurt either.
  • Invest in housing, education, and businesses to build up the generational wealth of Americans who had it systematically stripped throughout the course of our history. 

We’re not going to paper over the racial crimes perpetrated by America over the last several centuries by cutting checks in the next few years. But it would be a worthwhile use of our tax dollars to take money from a product that represents one of the most harmful elements of American public policy and put it toward a productive result that can at least start the process of making amends.

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