A ruling by Minnesota's Supreme Court upholding the state's "grass tax" on illegal drugs will encourage other states to enact similar laws as a way to cash in on the sale of contraband, officials said.
"I've had calls from every state in the union," said Dorothy McClung, director of appeals and legal services for the state Revenue Department. "Many were going to wait until the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled. There may be further action now."At least 12 other states have already patterned laws after Minnesota's, officials said. Most recently, Utah and Illinois imposed drug taxes this year.
The law, upheld by the state Supreme Court Friday, allows revenue officials to put liens on and seize the property of dealers who don't buy revenue stamps and stick them on their packets of drugs.
Under the 1986 law, the state has been busy filing tax liens against drug dealers and seizing cars, boats, jewelry and computers from those who forget to buy their red, blue and green tax stamps.
So far, the state has collected $430,000 but has more than $16 million in outstanding assessments. The law triggered 90 challenges in state tax court.
"We've been upheld. People who have been challenging it are going to be paying up," said Chris Sanft, a collection officer with the Department of Revenue.
The law is similar to those requiring cigarette and alcohol manufacturers to display stamps on products they sell. Violations can result in felony charges. Dealers arrested with drug packages that are not stamped can be assessed the tax plus a 100 percent penalty, regardless of whether they are convicted on drug charges.
The law is the brainchild of Robert Ebel, director of the state's Tax Study Commission. He wanted to use tax policy to make life miserable for drug pushers.
"I got sick and tired of the pushers," he said. The grass tax "seemed like a perfect tool."
"People thought it was very funny," he said. "Nobody understood the concept of taxing narcotics."
Under the law, drug stamps can be purchased through the mail or at the revenue department offices in St. Paul. The state has sold only 254 stamps, bringing in $2,018. The stamps cost $3.50 for each gram of marijuana, with a required minimum purchase of $150 worth of stamps. The rate for a controlled substance, including cocaine, is $200 per gram, with minimum purchase of $1,400 in stamps.
Revenue officials must guarantee confidentiality to those buying stamps. The right to purchase them anonymously is important to ensure that dealers are allowed the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination, McClung said. A similar law in South Dakota was struck down because it offered no such protection.
"We learned from the mistakes of others and, obviously, we did it right," said State Rep. Bill Schreiber, chief sponsor of the legislation. "Dope peddlers were getting slaps on the hand rather than being placed behind bars and taken off the street. With the grass tax, we're going to hit them in the pocketbook."
Friday's ruling was a loss for William Sisson of Roseville, who objected to the state's seizure of his recreational vehicle, travel trailer and lawn tractor after he failed to pay a $113,000 assessment in taxes and penalties for possession of controlled substances.
The court ruled that the grass tax law does not violate due process rights or the right against self-incrimination. It's uncertain whether the ruling will be appealed.