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Spend or save? Pot tax debate far from settled
Denver • Colorado's legal pot industry may be booming, but state lawmakers aren't sure how to spend the windfall.
A legislative budget committee decided not to vote Monday on a $54 million plan from Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper to spend marijuana revenues on drug education and outreach. The governor wants to spend recreational pot taxes to fund everything from increased drug-prevention outreach to a new study on marijuana use by pregnant women.
Instead, the Legislature may decide to spend very little of the state's marijuana tax collections. Worried about yo-yo tax collection and wildly different projections on how much pot taxes will produce this year, legislative budget writers passed around a draft bill Monday to delay almost all marijuana spending a full year.
"This whole house of cards could collapse in the near future," said Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, warning that a future White House could stop Colorado's pot plans short.
Colorado's pot tax debate is being watched closely. As the first state to reap sales and excise taxes from recreational pot sales, Colorado is expected to earn more than $40 million already earmarked by voters for school construction.
The rest of the windfall is up to lawmakers to appropriate. But with only two months of data on a brand-new industry, lawmakers from both parties are openly nervous about starting new programs the state won't be able to afford in future years.
The uncertainty was on full display Monday when the governor's marijuana adviser, Andrew Freedman, met with legislative budget-writers to explain the governor's pot plans.
Freedman insisted that the governor's plan is a prudent approach to try to mitigate harmful effects from marijuana legalization. Highlights include more youth outreach, public education efforts on things like smoking pot in public and training more police officers to spot stoned drivers.
Freedman told lawmakers the state needs to advertise a "responsible use culture" and reach out to minors about the dangers of marijuana use.
The education portion of the governor's plan has raised concerns that marijuana taxes might be used to fund ineffective Just-Say-No types of campaigns, but Freedman insisted marijuana messaging will be fair.
Describing anti-pot messages that would go to youth, Freedman said, "Listen, marijuana's not the devil, but it does impede development of the brain."
Lawmakers also heard from the head of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, which wants lawmakers to set aside money to train additional police officers to catch drugged drivers.
"Like it or not, we're a petri dish right now of trying to figure out how this works," Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson said.
Lawmakers haven't set a date on deciding on how to spend the pot tax money.