Colorado's Crazy Marijuana Tax

11/07/2013 03:15 pm ET

Taxing what you can't measure is nonsense. But Colorado voters were poised Tuesday to do just that, by taxing wholesale marijuana sales at 15 percent -- when no wholesaler exists. That's right: Most Colorado adult-use marijuana sales must go directly from producer to consumer with no wholesaling allowed, and no wholesale price as a measure for the wholesale tax! That's because Colorado law, at least at first, requires vertical integration of marijuana businesses.

Vertical integration? Here's an example: A wine company owns land, vines and a winery, and sells to consumers only at its own outlet store. Substitute "marijuana grow area" for land and vines, "marijuana production facility" for winery and "marijuana retailer" for outlet store, and you understand the Colorado model. Colorado law will require that at least 70 percent of marijuana sales follow that model, with the supply chain integrated vertically (from top to bottom) -- and with no wholesaler.

So how do you apply a wholesale level tax when no wholesaler exists? With great difficulty. Colorado regulatory authorities are struggling for answers.

Basing a tax on a fictitious price means no one will ever know the correct tax. Taxpayers will spend time and money trying to beat the system, and government will spend time and money in self-defense. Government and business are likely to grow irritated with one another as they argue about unanswerable questions.

Our dysfunctional international income tax system should have taught us that taxing what we can't measure is crazy. Multinational corporations like Google, Amazon and Starbucks pay little tax anywhere as they transfer assets among subsidiaries. What do they charge themselves for those assets? (How much does the right hand charge the left hand?) Current transfer pricing rules allow multinational corporations to construct artificial prices for sales between related parties, sales that almost never occur in the marketplace. "Fabled tax wizards" working for multinationals come up with a "tax return position" -- the company's view of how much tax it should pay. (Not much, and often zero.) Why make the same mistake -- opening the door to artificial pricing -- in taxing marijuana?

Back to Colorado's tax mess, and its warnings: Vertical integration (the no-wholesalers rule), imposed by the Legislature in 2013, could coexist easily with a tax based on weight or potency. That is, to tax marijuana at so many cents per gram, you never need to know the price. But a price-based, wholesale level tax was locked into place by Colorado's 2012 initiative (which did not require, forbid or address vertical integration at all). Colorado's wholesale, price-based tax would be administrable without vertical integration, because without it, real, separate wholesalers want to receive high prices, and their real, separate customers want to pay low prices. With that tension, there's a real, bargained-for market price to base taxes on.

Meanwhile, Washington State's law taxes newly-legal marijuana at wholesale, too, but Washington avoids Colorado's problem by forbidding vertical integration -- so related-party sales can't happen. That is, wholesalers are separate from retailers, so the wholesaler will get an arm's length, fair market value price from the retailer. That means the Washington State price-based wholesale tax will be related to reality. No fuss, no muss.

We are just at the beginning of figuring out how to regulate and tax marijuana. Other states thinking about legalization need to study the primitive example of Colorado's tax, and avoid the pitfall. The obvious answer is to forget price and adopt a surer tax base like weight or potency, following Federal precedents for alcohol and tobacco. Or, if states want a price-based tax for some reason, they can delay measuring it until there's an actual arm's length sale to an unrelated party. But here's the clear lesson for future legalizing states: If you require or allow vertical integration, a wholesale tax on prices -- when there is no actual sale -- is crazy. It's the kind of tax whose only fans will be tax professionals, billing by the hour.