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.