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CALGARY, Alta. Nov 19, 2015/ Troy Media/ – It seems like there is almost unanimous support for a loosening of marijuana laws from the nation’s pundits these days, on the left and right alike. With a pro-legalization government sweeping into power recently, the time may finally be ripe for meaningful policy change.
Recent opinion polls on its status have been leaning heavily towards at least decriminalization, with many favouring outright legalization. Marijuana marches are openly tolerated by police where masses of people smoke a so-called criminal substance. And as one Postmedia article put it, ‘legalization could only make it harder to buy . . .’.
Almost all anti-prohibition camps follow the mantra of “legalize and tax” when they talk about what should occur. I shudder at what would come next in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. We don’t need any more of these so-called sin taxes which disproportionately affect the poor and arbitrarily choose winners and losers in the marketplace.
Sin taxes are the extra taxes levied on certain goods and activities deemed harmful to society such as alcohol, tobacco and gambling. With marijuana legalization likely to come, cannabis sales will almost certainly fall under a similar ‘tax and regulate’ policy regime.
These taxes have been justified in numerous ways to different audiences over the years. They reduce use of the good by increasing the price; they recover the costs to society inflicted by this good’s use; and most recently, they ‘boost the economy’ by creating new revenue for our ‘cash-strapped’ governments.
Without delving too deeply into the economic argument, let’s assume that more tax revenue does indeed provide a ‘boost to the economy’. Why is it justifiable to put an extra tax on marijuana? The only arguments here are moral ones; otherwise you are simply asking for an excise tax on a good for arbitrary reasons.
If sin taxes are a method to recover the costs inflicted on society by the ‘sinful’ nature of the good, there seems to a moral dilemma between a government trying to control consumption of a good when it is in the government’s interest to encourage society’s continued and expanded use of this good or activity.
The problem is only exacerbated when the government has a near monopoly on the sale of the good (as we see with alcohol in many provinces).
Isn’t there something immoral or at least creepy about the government advertising the great deals on the supposedly harmful good they’re trying to protect you from? It can even be argued that sin taxes are downright predatory when they’re applied on goods that can become addictive.
What about the regressive nature of sin taxes? As we have seen with alcohol and tobacco, sin taxes tend to disproportionately increase the overall tax burden on low income Canadians as they have to spend a higher proportion of their income to consume said goods and their taxes.
And I don’t think I’m being too cynical when I say that sin taxes have historically been the easiest tax increases to sell to the public because very few question their morality or purpose. And you should never put it past an opportunistic politician to be sniping for a new revenue stream if it can fly under the radar and be justified as a public safety or health policy.
So while I can easily get on board with eliminating prohibition on the production and use of a good like cannabis, I think Canadians need to question the logic in applying an extra sin tax to a good just because of an existing social acceptance of punishing free people who choose to engage in ‘sinful’ activity.
Sin taxes are misguided policies at best and paternalistic or exploitative at worst.
Russell Phillips earned his BA from Mount Royal University in Calgary in 2013. Since joining the Canadian Constitution Foundation in 2014, Russell has been involved primarily with its communications work as well as helping plan and organize its annual Law & Freedom conference.
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