‘Bong tax’ proposed to help budget

TALLAHASSEE — It might not solve the state’s budget crisis, but a bipartisan pair of lawmakers think they’ve found another item that should be taxed: the bong.

Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, have both filed legislation that would subject a range of pipes often used to smoke crack or marijuana to a 25 percent tax.

The charge would come regardless of whether the pipes are to be used for legal purposes or not — a way to get at so-called “head shops” that often sell the instruments while claiming they don’t know whether the pipes are going to be used for tobacco or something else.

“What we hope to do is get rid of the charade, the hypocrisy,” Rouson said.

It’s something of a personal crusade for Rouson, who can still recite from memory the date he finally broke his own substance-abuse problems. The lawmaker said he’s been clean for more than 11 years after struggling with crack, alcohol and marijuana.

The legislation, supported by the state Office of Drug Control Policy, gained no traction last year at least in part because of fears that it would become a media-driven distraction from the difficult budget issues facing the state, Rouson said.

And while Rouson suggested the revenue could be used to fund drug-treatment programs threatened by the budget crises, those ills are not the main cause for the legislation.

Instead, Wise said, the aim is to increase the cost of peddling the pipes.

“We’re trying to get to the wholesalers and jack up the price big-time,” Wise said.

Bruce Grant, director of the Office of Drug Control Policy, said law enforcement officers often have an almost impossible task in trying arrest those selling or purchasing the pipes or shutting down head shops because anyone involved can simply say the devices will be used to smoke tobacco.

“You can’t prove that someone has broken a law just because they buy a pipe or a bong or something like that,” Grant said.

There were no reported arrests in October 2005 after a large-scale federal crackdown throughout the Jacksonville area, although agents confiscated 15,800 smoking tools said to be worth about $250,000 at 10 local stores.

One area retailer who carries glass pipes and bongs said she didn’t think a 25 percent tax would hurt sales.

“It doesn’t matter what it costs. If someone wants it, they’re going to buy it. It’s not like they can blow the glass themselves,” she said, requesting not to be named.

Critics say that if lawmakers think the new tax will decrease drug use, they’re wrong.

“The idea that it’s going to stop people from smoking ... is just ludicrous,” said Ford Banister, past president of the Jacksonville chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Banister heads the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, which is pushing decriminalization measures in several Florida cities.

Banister said making it more difficult to get the pipes from a store would probably just prompt users to create their own pipes.

“You can make a bong out of an apple, out of a potato, out of pretty much anything you want to,” he said.

Grant didn’t dispute that, but said the measure could at least crimp outlets turning a profit off bongs and its kin. Hookahs, a fixture in some Middle Eastern restaurants, would not be affected by the proposed tax.

“They’re making money selling this paraphernalia to people who then go out and do something illegal,” he said.