Drug War

A New Frontier in the War on Meth: A 40 Percent Tax on Bongs You Can't Use To Smoke Meth

Iowa smoke shop owners say the tax would be "a ban without being an outright ban."

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Zerron Horton, co-owner of the Unkl Ruckus smoke shop in Des Moines, Iowa, has managed to steer his business through a flash flood in 2018, a major theft in 2019, and everything that 2020 threw at him. If Iowa legislators have their way, it might not survive 2021.

In February, the state senate unanimously passed a bill that would impose a 40 percent tax on pipes and glassware and would require retailers like Horton to pay expensive new licensing fees.

The goal of the legislation, according to bill author Sen. Dan Dawson (R–Council Bluffs), is to crack down on meth. "Metallic and glass devices that are commonly used in one of the biggest problems that Iowa has right now, which is smoking methamphetamines," said Dawson to Radio Iowa in early March.

The legislation could spell death for businesses like Horton's. He tells Reason the taxes "would be absolutely destroying."

"I have 11 employees total, including me and the other owner, and I honestly can't say with security that I would be able to keep everybody," he says.

Dawson's bill, S.F. 363, would apply that 40 percent tax on smoking devices, defined as "any equipment or product made in whole or in part of glass or metal, that is designed for use in inhaling through combustion tobacco, hemp, other plant materials, or a controlled substance." Vaping devices are excluded, as are pipes made from clay, corncob, meerschaum, or briar.

The bill would also require retailers who sell those products to get a new device permit and pay a yearly $1,500 fee. Anyone shipping smoking devices directly to consumers in Iowa from out of state would also have to get a permits.

Unlike smokers of weed or tobacco, a meth smoker doesn't apply flame directly to the drug; one heats up the outside of the paraphernalia. Traditional pipes, bongs, or bubblers wouldn't get the job done. Only a narrow range of glassware, such as test-tube-looking devices or "bubble" pipes, are good for meth consumption.

Yet Dawson's bill applies the same heavy tax to all smoking implements, regardless of whether they could be used to smoke meth. Meanwhile, meth users still have ways to smoke without buying devices subject to that 40 percent tax. The glass tubes that cigars come in can work in a pinch. So can aluminum foil and a plastic straw.

Dawson, who also works as an investigator with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, candidly acknowledges that home-made paraphernalia exists, but seemingly argues that pushing people toward using them would be a virtue.

Using aluminum foil to smoke meth would "create a residue on there, so that would be drug paraphernalia," he told Radio Iowa. "But what people are doing now is they are buying these glass pipes because if they encounter law enforcement, they can throw it on the ground and smash it right away and destroy the evidence."

That suggests Dawson's real interest isn't stopping people from using meth by making pipes prohibitively expensive so much as it's making it easier for police and prosecutors to punish drug users. (Dawson did not respond to Reason's request for comment.)

So far, S.F. 363 has been moving through the state legislature with little difficulty or debate. Indeed, most business owners who would be affected by the bill didn't even know about it until about a week ago.

Kelly Stucker, the owner of The Konnexion in Iowa City, says she first heard about it from an old friend when they were catching up over the phone last Wednesday.

"It's was randomly brought up," she says. "I said, 'Oh shit! I got to go, I need to get into action mode right now.'" She immediately started calling glass shops around the state, contacting around 30 by the end of the day.

In the past week, Stucker has also created an activist campaign from scratch, posting a change.org petition, sending form letters and talking points to store owners, and reaching out to state legislators. The effort is necessary, she says, to prevent a mortal threat to her industry.

"It's basically a ban without being an outright ban. It's a 40 percent tax on the retail price of a product. That's insane," she says. "There's no way for me to compute that and figure out how the market is going to respond to that. It takes a $100 piece and turns it into a $140 piece. It takes a $200 piece and turns it into a $280 piece."

So far, she saws, lawmakers from either party haven't been responsive, which she finds incredibly disappointing.

"The left is denying Iowans the progressive policies they want. The right [is] crushing small businesses that they claim to hold so dear," she says. "Us left-leaning libertarians in the middle are fucking homeless."

Having passed the state senate, Dawson's bill is currently working its way through the committee process in the Iowa House.

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  1. The goal of the legislation, according to bill author Sen. Dan Dawson (R–Council Bluffs), is to crack down on meth.

    After decades of trying to meth down on crack, this seems like a promising new development.

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      1. “I have 11 employees total, including me and the other owner, and I honestly can’t say with security that I would be able to keep everybody,” he says.

        I'm pro-federalism, so I'm okay with this. Some communities don't want this shit in their town, so you need to get the fuck out. And this is a clear message for them to pack up and get the fuck out. You know what would be a great place for Horton? Seattle, WA. He'd be welcomed there like a hero, and should probably go there ASAP. Alternatively Portland, and many other areas in that region. Because people don't want his ass where he is now. And I don't blame them. If a prostitute was whoring and shooting up right outside my home - me, or even my neighbors would find a way to "get rid of them." Yes. That's right. So to prevent such activities, it's better we just make them illegal, so we can call formal, delegated officials, to come and remove them, as non-violently as possible, so we don't have to do it, violently. And that's better than the alternative. It's better the police apprehend and incarcerate, rather than us sneak around in the night providing dirt naps for them in ditches. And so yeah. Call us intolerant - that's fine. We don't want it. We voted for it to be gone. If you do it around here - there will be consequences - one way - or another. Democracy IS bigotry, that's our system of voting, and that's what you get. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for you. It's a big nation. There are 50 states. There are communities and cities within those states. There is a place for you. Just not the fuck here.

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    3. >>meth down on crack

      lol

  2. I much prefer South Dakota’s PSA on stopping this scourge: Meth. We’re on it.

  3. Because it’s super hard to make your own bong or pipe. Who can understand such advanced technology?

    1. okay I need a screwdriver, an apple, and some foil …

      1. Or just a soda can…

  4. Senior citizen lawmakers don’t know about how drugs work?

  5. Might be something you can report on regarding rolling back drug laws.

    This is not a small thing.

    If the Blake opinion does indeed invalidate past cases, it’s going to require “a Herculean effort” by the legal system to vacate old convictions and re-sentence people with drug-possession histories who are now serving time on a variety of crimes, Clark said.

    As of March 5, the state Department of Corrections estimated that statewide, fewer than 100 people were incarcerated and fewer than 7,000 people were on community supervision for simple possession convictions alone, according to a news release issued in the wake of the Blake decision.

    But Clark said the math gets a whole lot more complicated when prior VUCSA possession convictions get factored into prison sentences for subsequent felony criminal convictions.

    1. Great link. Thanks.

  6. Bongs are so 20th century, Boomer.

  7. water pipes! can’t call them bongs in the store.

    cypress hill sums up most things nicely

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMK4cfXj5c0

  8. “But what people are doing now is they are buying these glass pipes because if they encounter law enforcement, they can throw it on the ground and smash it right away and destroy the evidence.”

    Feature, not a flaw.

    1. Guess no cop was ever smart enough to bag the pieces for CSI: Sidewalk!

      1. Yeah, that comment struck me as especially stupid. The residue is still there. You just need to pick up the broken glass. Sure, you have a chain-of-custody problem – you have to show that the broken glass came from the guy you arrested. But you have the same problem when the guy wads up and throws away his little bit of aluminum foil. Or, god forbid, takes a pottery class and starts making his pipes out of clay.

      2. “But what people are doing now is they are buying these glass pipes because if they encounter law enforcement, they can throw it on the ground and smash it right away and destroy the evidence.”

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  9. are they also going to put a huge tax on plumbing fittings and other non-smoking related items that are repurposed for smoking drugs? All that is going to happen is if a pipe gets too costly a drug user will just change what the smoke from.

    1. And before you know it, someone’s dead after being put in a chokehold for selling untaxed laboratory glassware or 1/2” copper elbows.

    2. Never underestimate the MacGuyver-like abilities of pot smokers.

  10. Oh, great. A 40% tax for something already doomed to be broken more often than a glass coffee carafe, by the family dog, young toddlers, and occassioner drunks.

    That’s no way to promote customers of businesses, o’ flamboyant city! Remember the Harrison tax act that definably kicked off cannabis prohibition …

  11. How hard would it be to make clay/ceramic bongs?

    1. Made a hookah from cheap terracotta pots in my younger days. Bought everything at Home Depot. Very easy, very cheap.

  12. Gun owners. “First time huh?”

    Another battle plan in the war on drugs.

  13. “Meanwhile, meth users still have ways to smoke without buying devices subject to that 40 percent tax. The glass tubes that cigars come in can work in a pinch. So can aluminum foil and a plastic straw.”

    Light bulbs.

    Though, I suppose incandescent light bulbs *are* becoming less common.

  14. isn’t chasing the dragon one of the charms of using meth?

  15. Redesign them to look and function differently but still work for the desired purpose. Call them something else. No tax,cause it ain’t a bong.

    Stuff it, revenooers

  16. Any thoughts on banning aluminum foil?

  17. I know that the libertarian readers of reason are against the drug war.
    I agree that the current war on drugs does far more harm and doesn’t prevent any drug use.
    Did anybody see the video “Seattle is dying”?
    100% of the people in the homeless encampments on the sidewalks and parks of Seattle are drug addicts.
    So total legalization of drug use harms all the citizens who have to deal with needles, garbage, public drug use, urination, defecation and of course, theft.
    It seems we need some kind of harm reduction program so that these hopeless drug addict‘s don’t take over the public sidewalks and parks, making them unusable by tax paying citizens.
    Any ideas?

    1. How about giving addicts a daily fix at a government provided facility? They will get an unadulterated, measured dose. Not have to engage in thieving, prostitution or dealing. England in the 60’s had such a program. Daniel Richter, the mime artist and actor who created and played the role of the ape man ‘Moonwatcher’. (Tossing the bone which turned into a space ship.) He was a legal user of heroin throughout his collaboration with Kubrick.

  18. Who in their right minds would actually want to ban bongs and other paraphernalia? And even worse, who in their right mind would smoke meth?
    Everyone knows that snorting meth is the best way to do meth. And don’t forget to use McDonalds straw. I used to love those big fat straws. Plus, snorting meth is a far better rush than smoking it. Don’t waste your money on glass to smoke. Just buy a piece of glass big enough to dump a few lines and snort away!!!!!! WOOOOO WHAT A RUSH!

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