BOSTON — Beacon Hill leaders are quietly moving to eliminate one of the last vestiges of the war on drugs by repealing a rarely used tax on illegal sales of marijuana and other substances that went up in smoke a while ago. several decades.
The controlled substance tax law was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Judicial Court in a 1998 decision which determined that the law, which targeted drug traffickers, amounted to a double penalty.
Although the tax hasn’t been used for years since the court struck it down, it has remained on the books even as state voters voted to decriminalize marijuana use and legalize the sale in retail and drug culture.
Now, more than two decades later, the state is finally preparing to repeal it.
Governor Charlie Baker included the proposed repeal in an outdoor section of his draft budget, tabled in January. The House of Representatives approved the repeal as part of its version of the spending package, finalized in April, and the Senate also included it in its budget plan, which will be debated next week.
The State Department of Revenue, which was authorized to collect the tax, cited the 1998 SJC decision as the primary reason for seeking the repeal of the law.
On its website, the DOR points out that the controlled substance tax is not imposed on legal sales of marijuana from businesses licensed by the Cannabis Control Board. These sales are subject to cannabis retail sales taxes, which include a 10.75% state tax, 6.25% state sales tax, and any local pot tax.
The state’s controlled substance tax law was based on the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which was passed by Congress in response to concerns about drug use during the Great Depression.
The law effectively criminalized marijuana, limiting possession of the drug to those who paid “excise tax” for authorized medical and industrial uses. During World War II, the federal government issued pot revenue stamps issued to American farmers for the commercial cultivation of fibrous hemp to support the war effort.
The federal pot tax was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1969 ruling that led Congress to repeal the law a year later. In the ruling, the judges ruled that the law violated the Fifth Amendment because it required people who requested the pot tax stamps to incriminate themselves.
Massachusetts lawmakers approved the Controlled Substances Tax Act in 1993, along with a series of other laws toughening criminal penalties for drug possession and distribution in response to the national scourge of crack and heroin addiction.
The law set a tax rate of $3.50 per gram or $99.20 per ounce of marijuana, cocaine and other controlled substances. The State Department of Revenue printed postage-sized purple stamps for affixing to drug packages.
But the law was challenged several years later by an accused marijuana trafficker who sued the state over a tax assessment he received after his conviction.
In its ruling, the SJC determined that the Fifth Amendment — which prevents multiple penalties for the same offense — limits the state’s ability to assess tax against defendants who already face criminal penalties and court fines for marijuana possession. or other controlled substances.
The judges pointed out that there was no evidence that drug traffickers voluntarily paid the levy and noted that it had only been used twice since it was approved.
Law enforcement groups say they have no complaints that the state ultimately decides to repeal the law, given the High Court’s ruling.
“It’s not something we’re concerned about,” said Mark Leahey, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Chiefs of Police. “It’s been ruled unconstitutional and they’re finally starting to clean it up.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North Boston. Media Group newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected]