The Unexpected Way Local Marijuana Taxes Can Impact Public Health

Now that voters in Oregon have legalized marijuana one of the big policy fights is whether or not to allow cities to adopt their own local marijuana taxes. It is one of the hundreds of regulatory decisions each state is going to need to make as they move forward with marijuana reform.

Supporters of local taxes believe it is a matter of local control and say cities will need the extra money for dealing with implementing legalization. Opponents point to the fact that people voted for an initiative calling for a standardized marijuana tax throughout the entire state, and that high local taxes could undermine the goal of eliminating the black market.

What I haven’t seen mentioned so far is the impact it can have on driving. While we rarely ever talk about the impact on driving when discussing policy changes that aren’t directly about transportation, we really should. Driving is one of the most dangerous and destructive things average people do on a regular basis.

In 2012, 33,561 people died in the United States directly because of motor vehicle accidents and 2,362,000 people were injured. Cars are also a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gases. One study found emissions from road transportation may cause 53,000 premature deaths a year. In addition when people drive instead of walk it has negative consequences for their health.

If tax rates vary from city to city some people are going to drive to the next town to get a better deal. How much extra driving that could cause would depend on a huge number of unknowns, but purely for the sake of an illustration let’s assume a third of Oregon’s projected recreational consumers would choose to always drive to stores an average of 15 miles further away to save on taxes. That could result in 100 million more miles driven during the first three years. Based on national averages that should translate to about one extra traffic death and 80 injuries. It would also release about 40,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. A modest but real downside.

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