Solve Debt Crisis by Legalizing Marijuana?

Rep. Jared Polis on controversial plan to slash debt


CHRIS COTTER, GUEST HOST: As the president and Republicans spar over tax hikes, one lawmaker says there are three things happening in America right now that could provide the money solution. But it’s controversial.

Democratic Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado joins me now.

Congressman Polis, your plan involves marijuana, gambling and immigration. I’m already intrigued. Let’s start with how marijuana is going to help solve our debt crisis.

REP. JARED POLIS, D-COLO.: Hey, Chris, none of this is easy.

We all know we need spending cuts. It’s a lot harder to find common ground when it comes to revenue increases. About 15 states, including my home state of Colorado, have a regulatory environment -- environment that allows marijuana sales, medical marijuana. But there is currently effectively a 100 percent tax at the federal level. Effectively, it’s confiscated if the feds finds it, even though it’s legal, regulated, and taxed in 15 states.

So what we are simply saying is, reduce the marijuana tax, bring it in line with other sin taxes, alcohol, tobacco, whether you make it 15, 20 percent. The estimates are that this bill will raise $30 billion over 10 years. So, I think it will raise even more.

And it doesn’t make marijuana legal in any jurisdiction where it’s currently illegal. I want to point that out. It’s still illegal in 35 states.

COTTER: Well, let me ask you about your state. First of all, how long has medical marijuana been legal in Colorado?

And the second thing is, I think probably those that are against legalizing it would say, yeah, it brings in revenue from a tax perspective, but there are longer-term health issues where -- and societal issues -- where it becomes a negative.

What have you seen in that regard?

POLIS: Well, there’s no evidence that having it legal and regulated actually increases recreational usage of the drug.


POLIS: Recreational usage is a problem regardless of whether it’s legal or illegal.

Part of the problem with our current regime in many states where it’s illegal is, it’s still accessible. Kids get it, et cetera. What having a regulatory structure around it does, like Colorado has, helps keep it out of the hands of kids. And the money, instead of being made by the drug dealer on the street corner, is made by legitimate businessmen and businesswomen who pay taxes and follow the law.

COTTER: Now, what about immigration? How would you work receipts through immigration policy?

POLIS: Well, when we’re talking about expanding tax revenue, all of these items, what they have in common is expanding the base, either expanding what’s being taxed within the base or expanding the number of people.

We have about 15 million people here illegally. Are they paying taxes? I don’t know. A little bit. Some. Not all. They’re paying sales tax, not income tax. We don’t, is the bottom line. There’s vastly different estimates from advocacy groups on different sides of that. What I’m saying here is all the estimates of comprehensive immigration reform, the old Bush-McCain plan and everything that was talked about last year and didn’t make it through, these are revenue raisers, gets people in the system. If you are here illegally, you have got to pay a fine, $2,000, $3,000, pay a fine, register, pay your back taxes. With your provisional work permit, you pay taxes going forward, too.

So we’re expanding the tax base and making sure that people that were here illegally are paying their fair share and not being dragged along by the rest of us.

COTTER: You also advocate a one-year amnesty program for cheats, for tax offenders. Explain that one to me.

POLIS: Yes. So, again, this is people who have been – haven’t paid taxes in the past. It’s something that you can do once every generation. Many states have done this effectively, and saying, look, you didn’t pay taxes four years ago, five years ago. We want you to come forward, announce your violation, pay all your taxes going forward and we’re not going to pursue you criminally.

It’s a proven revenue raiser at the state level. Colorado did it recently. California’s done it in the past. Many states have done it. At the federal level, this is a big money raiser. Dr. Arthur Laffer, who ran the CBO under President Reagan, has estimated this would raise in excess of $800 billion over 10 years.

COTTER: You know I like your ideas. And throw in legalizing Internet gambling. I like where you are going with it.

My issue is just how big of a dent it makes. When you talk about the Harvard study with legalizing marijuana, $2.4 billion a year from a national standpoint, the immigration reform, anywhere from $5 to $12 billion a year. Does it make a big enough dent? You still have to tackle entitlements. And it still comes down to that, right?

POLIS: Absolutely.

And, by the way, so when we’re talking a $4 trillion year, a $2 trillion year, those are 10-year figures. So when you’re saying $2.5 billion a year from reducing the tax on marijuana that is $25 billion right there that brings to the table, because that’s a 10-year number. But, absolutely, this doesn’t mean the cuts go away, entitlement reform goes away, but it’s a way to put revenues on the table that’s consistent with the pledge that many Republicans have made not to raise tax rates.


And, Congressman Polis, every dollar counts. And I appreciate your way of thinking on this one. Thank you, sir.

POLIS: Thanks, Chris.

COTTER: All right.

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