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Jackson County Asks Voters To Tax Marijuana

John Rosman

The marijuana legalization measure Oregon voters passed last November says only the state can tax recreational cannabis. Twenty percent of that state tax revenue is earmarked for cities and counties. But a lot of local governments around the state say they need a bigger slice of that pie. Jackson County residents are voting next week on a measure to add a county tax on production and sales of both medical and recreational pot.

Doug Breidenthal says legal marijuana in Oregon will result in a wave of new costs that Jackson County will have to shoulder. He says officials in Colorado, the first state to have a legalized market for marijuana, back him up.

Doug Breidenthal: “Some of these counties, like Denver County, Colorado specifically, the number I got was, it’s actually increased their driving under the influence of marijuana by 50 percent.”

He predicts child abuse and domestic violence cases will rise, as well. Breidenthal is chair of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. He was one of two commissioners who voted in November to put the tax measure on a special ballot in March. Taxing marijuana, he says, is a matter of fairness to Jackson County property tax payers.

Doug Breidenthal: “Who should be paying for the influx of this new product into the judicial system? Should it be the property owners? Or should it be the users?”

Measure 91, the legalization law passed by Oregon voters last fall, says that – as with alcohol – only the state can tax cannabis. That hasn’t stopped at least 70 Oregon cities from passing local pot taxes. The League of Oregon Cities is vigorously pushing a bill in Salem that would give cities taxing authority and other controls over cannabis sales that Measure 91 does not. At a recent legislative hearing in Salem, the League’s Scott Winkels told lawmakers the estimated portion of the state’s pot tax earmarked for cities is inadequate.

Scott Winkels: “Law enforcement costs, staff planning time, legal time … it will add up. Two million dollars split among 242 cities simply doesn’t pay the bills for this.”

But Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner for Measure 91, says freeing local governments to assess their own taxes on cannabis would undermine the cornerstone of the measure.

Anthony Johnson: “If you’re going to curtail the illicit underground market, which everyone wants to do, having local taxes really defeats the purpose and will defeat the entire priority of Measure 91; to bring people out of the unregulated market into the regulated market.”

Johnson points to problems in Washington State, where legal marijuana is heavily taxed, forcing prices up.
Anthony Johnson: “And then you have illegal dealers standing outside in the parking lot undercutting the price of the regulated stores.”

He counsels a wait-and-see approach to modifying the measure that passed 56 to 44 percent.
Anthony Johnson: “Let the voter’s will be implemented, and then changes can be make if necessary down the line.”

State Representative Peter Buckley agrees. The Democrat from Ashland says legislators may be open to adjusting the formula for distributing state pot tax revenue to send more to local governments. But, he says, similar concerns about increased costs were raised last session in opposition to his bill that established a statewide dispensary system for medical marijuana. He says those fears haven’t been borne out.
Peter Buckley: “There are now 200 medical marijuana dispensaries, roughly, operating around the state. So far there has not been a single crime associated with any of the dispensaries.”

Buckley says studies in Colorado have similar findings.
Peter Buckley: “In fact, violent crime is actually down in Colorado, and the last report I saw was that auto fatalities are also down.”

Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal notes that the proposed county tax on sales of marijuana allows the commissioners to set the tax rate up to 25 percent. He says it could be lower.
Doug Breidenthal: “And that way, if we don’t have these impacts, we could just put it at zero.”

Breidenthal adds that would be his preference, but that he can’t guarantee the rest of the board would agree to forgo the tax revenue, if the measure is approved by voters … The deadline for ballots to be received is 8 p.m., next Tuesday, March 10th.

Copyright 2015 Jefferson Public Radio.

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