A new tax for the ballot

Raising recreational marijuana taxes could help reduce the state’s education gap, but at what cost?

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Weed Leaf Made of One Dollar Bill and Banknotes on background. Concept of Marijuana Companies' Profit.
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Come November, it looks like Colorado voters will be asked to raise marijuana taxes to support after-school initiatives intended to close the education gap created by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Colorado Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) campaign seeks to raise recreational marijuana taxes by 5% in the state — from 15% to 20% — to fund after-school programs, tutoring and summer learning activities for low- and middle-income families through $1,500 stipends. 

LEAP campaign members turned in some 90 boxes of signatures to Gov. Jared Polis’s office on June 30, approximately 200,000 signatures. The measure requires 124,632 valid signatures to make it to the ballot. 

But while the outpouring of support in signatures seems clear, not everyone is behind the measure. 

“That this initiative is being pushed at a moment in Colorado when the cannabis industry is trying to create more equity and bring economic growth to marginalized communities harmed by the racist Drug War is especially tone deaf,” Hashim Coates, executive director of the diversity-focused trade group Black Brown and Red Badged, said in a press release about the measure. “But that is to be expected when the backers of this measure are affluent white men.”

“Let’s just be perfectly clear: This is a regressive tax — which always harms Black and Brown consumers the most. This is going to a voucher program — which always harms Black and Brown communities the most,” Coates said. “And it’s targeting the marijuana industry as a magical bottomless piggy bank — which will devastate the Black- and Brown-owned cannabis businesses the most. Can we just let the Black community breathe for a moment after this pandemic before we start taxing them to death?”

Peter Marcus, spokesman for Boulder-based dispensary chain Terrapin Care Station, echoed these thoughts in an interview with Westword back in March, when the LEAP initiative was just starting to collect signatures. 

“Generally speaking … we’re seeing increased efforts to use the cannabis consumer as the piggy bank for state and local budget woes,” Marcus said. “It’s important that we maintain cannabis tax rates that won’t empower a[n illicit] market. Cannabis is already taxed at a high rate; at some point, we’re going to wake a dormant black market if we continue to tax cannabis consumers to fix local and state budget holes. State and local leaders should be working to fund long-term sustainable solutions for our budget problems, not Band-Aid fixes on the backs of cannabis consumers.”

In June, the state’s top teachers union, the Colorado Education Association (CEA), withdrew support for the initiative, citing concerns about the implementation of the out-of-school learning program.

CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert told the Colorado Sun in mid-June that she was particularly concerned about whether rural Colorado students would have the same access to after-school programming as their peers in more populous areas of the state. 

Still, the measure is endorsed by two former Colorado governors, some 20 sitting state lawmakers, several former legislative leaders and a number of educational organizations.

Advocates estimate that the measure will net $150 million in additional funding annually. While marijuana is the main funding source, the LEAP initiative also seeks to repurpose a portion of investment revenue from leases, rents and royalties paid for state-owned lands, estimated at around $60 million annually. The remaining revenue will come from the 5% increase in recreational marijuana sales tax. 

Signatures are now on their way to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office for validation.