Lawmakers are replanting Initiative 502 before it’s had a year to establish roots. Some of this cultivation is warranted, some is premature.
The House and Senate are working on ways to harmonize the unregulated medical marijuana market with the regulated recreational one. Voters legalized medical marijuana in 1998, but the Legislature has failed to establish a regulatory framework for distribution and sales. This has caused headaches for municipalities ever since. Spokane Valley, for instance, has declared a moratorium on new medical marijuana busineses as it awaits state action.
Both chambers wisely passed bills that fold medical marijuana into the regulatory structure for recreational pot created by the Liquor Control Board. The bills create a voluntary registry for authorized patients who would be able to purchase greater quantities and gain access to tax exemptions.
Other worthy measures would help recreational pot businesses get off the ground. One change would shrink the buffer zones that make it difficult to place retail businesses within cities. Currently, pot businesses must be at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks and other children-centric places. Only 5 percent of Seattle qualifies. The South Hill has no stores.
Both chambers want to change the tax structure, which pushes the price of pot far above the black market. Currently, a 25 percent excise tax is placed on growers, processors and sellers separately. A House bill would install a single levy of 30 percent at the retail level. A Senate bill would do the same, at a rate of 37 percent.
Legislators also need to begin sharing marijuana revenue with local governments that allow pot to be sold. More than 100 municipalities have issued bans or moratoriums because they haven’t received any money to enforce the new law. The bans encourage illegal sales. Both House and Senate budgets include provisions to distribute $6 million in pot revenue to cities and counties.
However, both chambers divert marijuana revenue from promised prevention, treatment and health care programs, and that’s troubling.
The Senate budget optimistically projects $296 million in marijuana revenue over the next two years. Along with the $6 million for cities and counties, another $8 million would go to the Liquor Control Board to support oversight. The rest would be snatched for public school funding. The House budget projects $270 million in revenue and leaves some money for prevention and treatment. But it also allows for funding diversions.
Grabbing pot money for general fund challenges harkens to the days when tobacco settlement funds were taken from designated public health programs in order to balance the budget. In this case, the Legislature would be doing it before lawmakers even know the impacts of legalized marijuana use. Many people voted for I-502 with the idea that money would be available for prevention campaigns aimed at youths, and treatment options available for abusers.
Rerouting the funds now not only changes the nature of the initiative, it risks the spread of drug-related problems. Lawmakers should restrain themselves until they have a better handle on the consequences of legalization.
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