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Marijuana: 30 percent pot tax is reasonable and voters will pass it, activist says

Earlier today, we shared the thoughts of Sensible Colorado head Brian Vicente about the federal government's continued silence on Amendment 64, the marijuana measure he co-authored.

But we also asked Vicente's views about the newly passed but not yet signed marijuana laws spurred by A64, as well as the fear among lawmakers that Colorado voters will reject taxes on pot -- so great a concern that the legislature almost approved a measure that might have repealed much of it.

Let's tackle the tax question first. As we've reported, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, shorthanded as TABOR, requires a vote to approve tax increases. Hence, House Bill 13-1318 was designed to set rates to be considered in this November's election. An excise tax of 15 percent was envisioned in A64's language, but a sales tax of up to 15 percent not sketched out in the amendment was also pushed, in part because of assorted claims that lower assessments wouldn't cover the costs of state weed regulation. If such assertions proved true, the marijuana measure would wind up costing the state money rather than triggering a substantial revenue windfall.

Lawmakers concerned about marijuana taxes came together toward the end of the legislative term.
Lawmakers concerned about marijuana taxes came together toward the end of the legislative term.

The prospect of running up debt in regulating pot inspired SCR13-003, a bill introduced just before the legislative session's conclusion. It read in part: "The concurrent resolution submits two questions concerning marijuana to the voters of the state at the statewide election to be held in November of 2013. If the voters approve the first question, the concurrent resolution will impose a state sales tax and a state excise tax on retail marijuana, legalized by section 16 of article XVIII of the state constitution."

That first question involved the excise and sales taxes, with both set at 15 percent. The summary later noted that "if the voters approve the first question, the state will be allowed to collect and spend any revenues generated by the retail marijuana excise and sales taxes as voter-approved revenue changes."

What if the voters didn't approve the first question, but blessed question number two -- the one concerning repeal? Then, the bill stated, "the concurrent resolution will suspend all provisions of section 16 of article XVIII of the state constitution relating to the regulation of marijuana until such time as voters approve the imposition of new state taxes or increases in state tax rates sufficient to fund the estimated costs of state regulation of marijuana."

Amendment 64 proponent Betty Aldworth was among those who testified against the last-minute bill.
Amendment 64 proponent Betty Aldworth was among those who testified against the last-minute bill.

SCR13-003 was backed by some heavy hitters, including Senate Majority Leader John Morse and 23 other senators. The proposal appeared on track for passage when it was stalled as a result of lobbying efforts by frustrated marijuana advocates and a filibuster threat by House opponents. In the end, the bill died, and the legislators approved language establishing a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax that can be increased to 15 percent if costs aren't being covered. But even if the sales tax stays at 10 percent, the total cost for consumers will likely be over 30 percent after the inclusion of local sales taxes.

Is that number so high that even Coloradans who favored Amendment 64 may vote against them? Not in Vicente's view.

"I think this has been a straw-man argument from the beginning," he contends. "There is almost no voter out there who's going to vote against these marijuana taxes. We are going to win this in a landslide."

What makes him so certain?

Continue for more of our interview with Brian Vicente.

 

For one thing, a poll commissioned by Amendment 64 proponents showed that support for taxes in the range approved by the legislature was strong, with 77 percent of those surveyed saying they would vote in favor of them.

Brian Vicente celebrating Amendment 64's passage this past November.
Brian Vicente celebrating Amendment 64's passage this past November.

"Polling shows that almost 80 percent of the public is going to vote 'yes' on this," Vicente stresses. "And we're going to be supporting these taxes in the same way the Governor says he's going to -- and we expect law-enforcement agencies and others who want to see this model be regulated to support them, too."

As for the level of taxation, he considers it to be "fairly reasonable for consumers. It allows people to buy marijuana from regulated storefronts for, really, the first time in history. So I don't think folks are going to be scared away from doing so by a 30 percent tax."

Of course, some people would like taxes to be even higher -- not just opponents who believe that super-expensive pot could lower consumption, but also regular backers of elevated "sin" taxes on products like alcohol and tobacco. In Vicente's opinion, though, "there's a fine point between taxing this too much and keeping a vibrant black market or taxing it an appropriate amount," thereby undermining illegal activities. "If taxes are 40 or 50 percent, I think some people might still go to the black market, but 30 percent is not too high. We want to establish a moderate amount of tax that guarantees revenue for the state without being overly cumbersome for consumers."

The worry that these taxes might not pay for the state's marijuana program is unfounded, he feels. "Every researcher, think tank and report that's looked into this in an unbiased way concludes that Amendment 64 will produce tens of millions of dollars for the state. It's probably going to be close to $50 to $60 million for the state coming out of the pockets of cartels and going into state coffers. This is going to provide a tremendous amount of funding for schools -- and we think the funding will be there."

Of the non-tax-related bills passed by the legislature, the one that troubles Vicente most is the THC driving limit, which critics say could criminalize medical marijuana patients and other regular users even when they're driving sober.

"Our concern is, 'Is this science-based?'" he acknowledges. "But we think it's good that there's now an affirmative defense for marijuana patients," as opposed to an immediate presumption of guilt if an individual tests with more than five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. "Our hope is that police won't be pulling folks who aren't impaired into the dragnet of the criminal-justice system. Only time will tell."

As for the other pot measures, he calls them "generally pretty strong. They establish a fairly comprehensive regulatory structure to go along with common-sense tax rates."

He's confident the average Colorado voter will see them as "common sense," too.

More from our Politics archive: "Marijuana taxes over 30 percent to start and other highlights from (almost) final pot bills."


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