Pubdate: Wed, 10 Dec 2014
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2014 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.
Author: A. Barton Hinkle


When a grand jury refused last week to bring an indictment in the 
death of Eric Garner, the New Yorker who died from a policeman's 
chokehold, the outrage across the political spectrum was nearly 
universal. Left and right, libertarian and collectivist: Everybody 
was, for once, in agreement. For a moment or two. Then fissures began 
appearing. One of them concerned the role New York's cigarette taxes 
played - or didn't - in Garner's death.

You can make a good argument, as several commentators did, that the 
city's outlandishly high taxes contributed to Garner's death. Those 
taxes have created a huge black market in cigarettes, and the cops 
were busting Garner for selling "loosies," or individual cigarettes, 
on the street. Not long ago, New York enhanced the penalty for 
selling loosies, and "an order to crack down on the illegal sale of 
75-cent cigarettes in Staten Island came directly from police 
headquarters, setting off a chain of events that ended in Eric 
Garner's death," the Daily News reported.

The suggestion that high taxes might have helped kill Garner enraged 
those who like them. When Sen. Rand Paul made the point, for 
instance, he was swiftly and widely pilloried. The very idea was 
"really ludicrous," scoffed Salon's Joan Walsh. Paul will "always be 
an anti-tax libertarian first and foremost," she continued, "before 
he's a civil rights libertarian." People who order their priorities 
differently than she does are such jerks.

To be fair, Michael Brown was not killed for selling untaxed 
cigarettes in Ferguson. Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old gunned down in 
heinous abandon by a Cleveland police officer, was not selling 
untaxed cigarettes. John Crawford, shot to death by a police officer 
in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart, was not selling loosies. Neither was 
Rumain Brisbon, who was killed last week by an officer in Phoenix. 
Amadou Diallo, perhaps the most famous victim of homicide by cop, was 
not selling loosies when four New York officers pumped 41 shots into 
him back in 1999. There's more to the issue of excessive force than taxes.

But New York's cigarette taxes are not merely a revenue source. They 
are also a mode of social engineering. At more than $5 a pack, they 
are meant to discourage smoking. It's even possible that, despite the 
relative inelasticity of demand for cigarettes, New York would 
collect more revenue if it discouraged smoking less. In this regard 
high cigarette taxes represent another facet of the war on drugs.

And there is no doubt that war disproportionately harms 
African-Americans. Blacks and whites use drugs at roughly similar 
rates, but blacks make up three-fifths of people serving time in 
prison for a drug offense. Half of all drug arrests are for 
marijuana, which whites and blacks also use in similar rates, yet the 
ACLU reports that blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be busted for 
marijuana than whites are. The Brookings Institution notes that while 
the number of black Americans arrested for property and violent 
crimes has fallen over the past three decades, the number arrested 
for drug-related crimes has skyrocketed. Therefore, a question: What 
is the racial breakdown of those arrested for selling loosies in New York?

And here's another question: How many people have been killed by 
police officers over, say, marijuana offenses?

Earlier this year, Jason Westcott was killed by a police SWAT team. 
The officers were executing a search warrant for marijuana; they 
ended up executing him. In one widely publicized case three years 
ago, police officers investigating possible marijuana offenses raided 
the home of Jose Guerena, a Marine and Iraq War veteran, and shot him 
at least 60 times.

In 2012, Chavis Carter was shot and killed with his hands cuffed 
behind his back in the rear of a police car. He had been arrested for 
marijuana possession. Last year, police in North Carolina shot and 
killed Jaquaz Walker during an undercover marijuana sting, and Los 
Angeles officers killed an armed 80-year-old man during a raid on a 
pot-growing enterprise. This year alone, roughly three dozen people, 
including some innocent bystanders, have died as the result of 
confrontations that would not have taken place if pot were legal.

Did marijuana prohibition kill those people? Or would the Joan 
Walshes of the world find that notion ludicrous (perhaps even "really 
ludicrous")? It seems reasonable to surmise that the war on marijuana 
increases the number of occasions for the police to use force, with 
sometimes deadly results. After all, you don't hear about too many 
people gunned down by the cops for selling roses on the street 
corner, do you? So if it is reasonable to surmise that about 
marijuana, then why not about tobacco, too?
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