WASHINGTON, D.C. — Turns out Grover Norquist — the progressive pariah who single-handedly has gotten most every elected Republican to Pledge to not raise taxes of any shape or size — is okay with one tax. He’s fine with taxing marijuana. At least once.
The former Chamber of Commerce economist made his name by opposing taxes, and he’s good at what he does. He made it a cardinal rule for conservatives by rallying the Republican electorate to help punish any and every GOP lawmaker who strays from the anti-tax orthodoxy he created (even Ronald Reagan raised taxes, folks).
Despite his virulent anti-tax stance, Norquist told The News Station he wouldn’t hold a vote in favor of a tax hike — which is included in the MORE Act that’s before the House later this week — against lawmakers who vote for any initial tax connected to federal marijuana legalization.
“Certainly,” Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform (also known as ATR), replied after asked if he’d be okay with a federal cannabis tax in exchange for legalizing the plant federally.
Marijuana firms are currently deemed illegal federally, which practically means they can’t utilize deductions or tax credits; even as the feds reap tax money from the industry. Norquist has been one of the most vocal conservative voices calling out for marijuana legalization.
That’s where the nation’s newfound cannabis complexity meets Norquist’s own feared Pledge: Even an anti-tax hawk like Norquist — arguably the nation’s premier anti-tax hawk — wants cannabis firms to benefit from the tax code.
Norquist claims to maintain a libertarian streak even as he’s now one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists.
He’s basically become synonymous with his Pledge that’s now signed as a matter of course by any Republican candidate for federal, state or local office. The Pledge has allowed Norquist to have influence over Republican tax policy, including helping secure passage of the 2017 GOP tax cuts.
But Norquist is open to a one-time, national cannabis tax. He told The News Station any increase above that initial tax on marijuana would count as a pledge infraction.
“But once the tax is set—any increase in the tax would be a violation of the Pledge,” Norquist said. “ATR opposed the hike in the cannabis tax in Colorado after the original tax [was] set. Ditto for the national legislation.”
Norquist’s comments come as the House is scheduled to vote later this week on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would decriminalize cannabis nationally by removing it from the federal category, or schedule, of more dangerous drugs, like heroin. The bill also would tack on a five percent tax, which would, in part, help pay for clearing people’s records of past marijuana convictions.
While House Democratic leaders are moving on the legislation this week, it’s a non-starter for most — if not all — GOP leaders.
“I think that’s a pipe dream,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate majority whip, told The News Station this week when asked about the bill’s prospects in the upper chamber.
One reason for his opposition: The very tax that Grover Norquist now approves after years of punishing Republicans who dared support even the smallest tax hike.
“Certainly, if it’s a new tax, that makes it even more problematic for most Republicans,” Thune said.
Other Republicans agree.
Libertarian darling Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said it’s not something he’s thought a lot about. Still, he’s aligned with anti-tax-Grover — not-tax-and-spend-cannabis-loving-Grover.
“I haven’t thought it through, but I’m not a big believer that taxes on anything is good for developing it,” Paul told The News Station.
Libertarians aside, even some pro-marijuana Republicans have issues with the MORE Act tax.
Former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told The News Station the use of the tax funds to expunge the records of those convicted of violating marijuana laws is also a turn off to many in the GOP.
“The MORE Act is flawed in that the tax added to the legislation is really aimed at furthering a liberal agenda item, race-based reparations, rather than a significant amount necessary for changes and social costs associated with an expanded legal use of marijuana,” Rohrabacher said.
The funds would also be used to pay for social services in communities most harmed by the War on Drugs as well as support for businesses from the Small Business Administration.
The provision is designed to appeal to progressive Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who see it as a downpayment on criminal justice reform. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, according to the ACLU.
But it’s not just a tax issue. There remains a cultural dislike of marijuana among some elected Republicans.
For example, Thune was surprised voters in his ruby-red Republican South Dakota — a state he’s represented as a senator for 16 years after spending six years in the House — approved ballot measures this November separately legalizing recreational and medicinal marijuana.
“I was surprised,” Thune told The News Station. “I mean, I thought medicinal would pass, but I didn’t think recreational would. And I don’t think it’s a good policy.”
Thune expects his state’s legislature to try to change the law once more data are available but didn’t have any details on how it would be changed or repealed.
“At least for right now, that’s the will of the majority,” Thune said.
“I just think there’s going to be some analysis given to what’s been done, what could be done, and if there’s any chance that it could be shaped or tailored in a way that doesn’t create all the ancillary problems that I think come with it,” Thune said.
NORML Political Director Justin Strekal attributed the Senate GOP’s reluctance to change marijuana laws not to taxes but to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has mocked the House’s efforts.
Republicans like Thune are pragmatic and could come around to support a change, according to Strekal, but not until McConnell is out.
“Mitch McConnell rules the Senate with an iron fist,” Strekal told The News Station. “And he has made it abundantly clear that he wishes to continue to see Americans be arrested and incarcerated for mere marijuana possession.”