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Voters To Weigh In On Colorado Marijuana Taxes

Flickr - Creative Commons
Marijuana indvidually bagged and ready for use in this photo dated April 20, 2013.

Colorado is preparing for the state’s first recreational marijuana stores to open this January. In the meantime, voters still have the final say on how the new product will be taxed through Proposition AA.

The statewide ballot measure would place an excise and special sales tax on marijuana. Right now, Proposition AA is dividing the marijuana community which had shown solidarity a year ago in the fight to approve legalization through Amendment 64.

“This is the right thing to do to fund the oversight structure to really fulfill the promise of taxing this product,” said Brian Vicente with the group Sensible Colorado.

Vincente was one of the lead architects of the legalization effort. He’s now heading up the campaign pushing for new taxes.

Amendment 64 required an excise tax be set on the product to raise money for school construction. The exact amount of that tax was left up to state lawmakers and after months of debate this year they settled on 15 percent.

But they went one step further – adding on a 10 percent sales tax to help pay for regulation. It’s the additional tax that has split the marijuana community.

“Just remember, that if you don’t use it, you won’t pay it. Let’s go fight and win,” said Rick Ridder of the Committee for Responsible Regulation.

The No on AA Campaign says a 10 percent statewide sales tax is too steep, especially when local communities will have their own separate sales taxes on top of that.

There’s a feeling that high taxes will only force customers back into the black market, rather than the newly legalized marketplace. That’s something attorney and marijuana advocate Robert Corry agrees with.

“The perception is that if you’re not a marijuana smoker this won’t affect you. That’s not true,” Corry said. “The reemergence of the underground market is going to impact your life negatively.”

“There’s no evidence we need these taxes to regulate marijuana. The numbers were picked arbitrarily. It’s just a money grab by government,” Corry said.

State lawmakers, like Senator Pat Steadman (D-Denver), say they’ve worked hard to strike the right balance.

“Some of our presumptions and projects are going to need to be revisited down the road," Steadman said.

Still Steadman says it’s a work in progress because it’s the first regulated marijuana market in the country.

“We need to see what the volume of sales will be, the prices,” Steadman said. “We don’t have all the information right now.”

As far as the marijuana industry is concerned most members are behind the tax. Sensible Colorado's Vicente says the owners of retail marijuana businesses also want to show federal regulators they’re serious and want to be taxed just like everyone else.

“It’s just common sense, if we are going to sell this product like alcohol and make sure there’s a good regulatory structure in place,” Vicente said.

Supporters of Proposition AA have significantly more cash on hand than opponents like Robert Corry’s group. He says the tax debate is healthy, and it’s not unusual to have disagreements within the marijuana world.

“The marijuana community is rarely unified on anything, they’re free thinkers and not pigeon holed easily,” Corry said. “We have a lot of different temperaments; we don’t operate in lock step.”

Regardless of the outcome, Corry says marijuana users will move beyond what he calls a family spat. Proposition AA has polled well and is expected to easily pass this fall.

If Proposition AA doesn’t pass, lawmakers say they’ll have to come up with the money for enforcement from somewhere else. Even if it fails, recreational marijuana stores are slated to open in some Colorado communities Jan. 1.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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