Sweeney: Some taxing questions about ‘medicine’

LISA BENSON / Washington Post Writers Group


I take five medications daily to treat chronic rhinitis. Four of them require prescriptions, so the state doesn’t levy sales taxes on them. A tax might be a disincentive to follow a doctor’s advice, especially for someone with limited income.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration changed my fifth daily med to over-the-counter status a year or so ago. My physician still wants to me to use it, but now I’m on the hook for state and local sales taxes. In Santa Rosa, that’s 8.75 percent.

But today’s topic isn’t my stuffy nose. It’s pot.

Or to use the euphemism preferred by users and purveyors, medicine. You say Pineapple Express, I say Singulair. You say Nebula Kush, I say Prednisolone. I’m guessing the Thin Mint Cookies listed on the “menu” at Peace in Medicine, a local dispensary that claims to service 40,000 “patients,” aren’t the same ones the Girl Scouts are selling outside my neighborhood Safeway store, but I digress.

The point is the rules are the same for either kind of medicine. You can’t buy it without permission from a physician.

Tax treatment is another matter.

It’s a good thing I can’t smell much of anything, because there’s something skunky about the politics of pot taxes.

The state says medicine — that would be the Nebula Kush, Pineapple Express variety — is subject to sales taxes, even though it must be recommended by a doctor.

To qualify for a tax exemption, the state Board of Equalization says, a drug must be prescribed by a doctor and dispensed by a registered pharmacist. A recommendation isn’t a prescription, according to the board (which is probably a good thing, because the feds just might nick a doc’s license for prescribing pot). And marijuana dispensaries aren’t pharmacies (despite the scientific sounding names of their products — Gorilla Glue No. 4, anyone?).

So pot gets taxed, Singulair doesn’t. Tampons won’t be either if California legislators determine they’re a necessity. But a bill introduced in Sacramento this past week would add a 15 percent retail tax on top of the 8.75 percent sales tax on Platinum Romulan, almost triple the tax rate for my over-the-counter Nasocort.

Talk about a buzz kill. You would think that users — pardon me, patients — and dispensary owners — make that caregivers — would object to such an obvious double standard, right? These are sick people we’re talking about, after all. Their doctors say that Afgoo or Hash Train will make them well, or at least ease their suffering. The tax on cigarettes — coffin nails! — is only 87 cents a pack. And everyone knows that pot is harmless and therapeutic — a placebo and a miracle drug all rolled up in one.

Yet you could hunt for a long time without finding pot merchants who object to taxing their customers. Oh, some of them may quibble about the rate, but you’re mostly going to hear about the potential tax windfall from enabling the sale of marijuana cigarettes and tinctures and brownies and chocolate bars and truffles — even the gluten-free and vegan varieties.

I covered the state Legislature for a lot of years, and I don’t remember many businesses pleading for higher taxes. I’ve read plenty of news stories about companies moving their headquarters overseas to trim their budding federal tax bills. I gripe about my taxes. You probably gripe about yours, too.

Maybe marijuana moguls are different. Maybe they like paying taxes.

Or maybe they didn’t medicate before their U.S. history class and doze off. You see, from the Revolution until Prohibition, the federal government was heavily dependent on alcohol taxes to pay for its operations. And without the 16th Amendment (income taxes), the 18th (Prohibition) didn’t stand a chance.

You don’t suppose they’re trying to hook the state on a new source of revenue — one that could discourage opposition to full-scale legalization of marijuana? But if it’s just another intoxicant, was pot ever really medicine at all?

Jim Sweeney is assistant editorial director of The Press Democrat. Email him at