Iowa lawmakers want to ban pipes, but the Constitution stands in the way

Iowa lawmakers want to ban pipes, but the Constitution stands in the way


That pesky U.S. Constitution is getting in the way of Iowa lawmakers and their drug-busting fantasies.

The Iowa Senate last week unanimously approved a bill to hike state fees on tobacco pipe retailers, which lawmakers say is a strategy to address methamphetamine use among Iowans. In reality, it’s a big-government tax-and-regulate scheme that’s unlikely to have any beneficial impact on risky drug use.

Senate File 363, which advanced 49-0 from the Senate last week, would be a huge tax increase for small businesses. If it earns final approval, it will require pipe sellers to hold a tobacco license, obtain an additional device retailer permit for $1,500 and pay a whopping 40 percent excise tax on pipes.

If that seems overly harsh, to the point of putting mom-and-pop head shops out of business, that’s because it’s by design. Lawmakers would have gone further, if not for that meddling Constitution.

“Let me be clear — my preference here would be to ban these devices throughout the state, but because of U.S. constitutional issues, I can’t do that,” said state Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs.

Dawson said on the Senate floor that glass and metal pipes are mostly used for meth, heroin and crack cocaine, but didn’t offer any insight on how he knows that.

The bill specifically applies to glass and metal pipes designed for inhaling combustible tobacco or other substances. Tobacco, of course, is legal and such devices have been available for many years. Sometimes, I imagine, they are used to consume illicit substances, but that’s not their official purpose.

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Even if we believe Iowa lawmakers — that the world is a scary place where small-business owners are trying to get your kids hooked on meth — it’s not clear this legislation is a good response. It carries some foreseeable unintended consequences that undercut lawmakers’ intent.

The bill specifically does not apply to old-timey pipes made from briar, meerschaum, clay or corncob. So, maybe a new industry of hipster artisan pipe shops will pop up in places like Iowa City and Des Moines.

The bigger oversight on lawmakers’ part is that store-bought pipes are just one means of consuming substances. If someone is committed to taking drugs, lack of a pipe probably will not stop them.

Do-it-yourself pipes can easily be fashioned from household items such as cans, foil or even fruit. Done wrong, those improvised devices could put users at risk of getting burned or unintentionally inhaling harmful chemicals.

All methods of drug use carry some risks and it’s not helpful to stigmatize some over others. But users who don’t have a pipe might instead inject (“shoot”) or insufflate (“snort”) their drugs, which can pose a different set of risks than smoking.

The impact of Iowa’s war on tobacco pipes will be that some locally owned shops go out of business, others may downsize and drug users will take up potentially more dangerous methods.

If state interventions like this were effective at limiting harmful drug use, lawmakers could simply institute a $1,500 licensing fee for meth dealers, impose a 40 percent excise tax on their products and then declare victory.

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