Task force ponders Colo. pot taxes

Financial understanding of legal market remains hazy

Colorado regulators are working out the details of exactly how to tax legal marijuana so benefits are shared statewide in the form of increased revenue. Draft recommendations will be based on the voter-approved marijuana-legalization question that asked for excise taxes up to 15 percent to fund drug education and school construction. Enlarge photo

Ed Andrieski/ Associated Press

Colorado regulators are working out the details of exactly how to tax legal marijuana so benefits are shared statewide in the form of increased revenue. Draft recommendations will be based on the voter-approved marijuana-legalization question that asked for excise taxes up to 15 percent to fund drug education and school construction.

DENVER ľ Coloradoĺs tokers were the biggest winners in the vote that legalized marijuana. Now state regulators are working out the details of exactly how to tax it, so the benefits ľ in the form of increased revenue ľ are shared statewide.

A state panel set up to regulate marijuana in Colorado agreed Thursday to recommend the highest tax contemplated by voters last year ľ a 15 percent excise tax, with the profits going to school construction.

The tax question is far from settled, though.

Colorado lawmakers could set a lower tax, or they could add sales taxes beyond the current statewide 2.9 percent. Legislators even could create a special new ômarijuana taxö for consumers, plus a series of required licensing fees for growers and sellers. In addition to schools, the taxes must fund marijuana safety enforcement and drug-education measures.

Any option would have to go back to voters for final approval.

Marijuana proponents and critics agree taxes should be hefty. But if levies are too high, legal pot could be so expensive that people continue buying it underground.

ôIf this doesnĺt work and taxes are so high the black market still dominates, then what was the point?ö said Mike Elliott of Coloradoĺs Medical Marijuana Industry Group.

Others argued that marijuana taxes should be sky high so pot smokers would pay for any damage to public health and safety. Task members got a visit Thursday from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former brewpub owner who told the pot group that taxes and regulations in the alcohol business are exhaustive, too. Hickenlooper opposed marijuana legalization and since has warned of costs to society, including teen drug abuse.

ôIĺm not saying the sky is falling and itĺs the end of the world. But most people expect ... there will be some negative consequencesö from legal pot, Hickenlooper said.

Fiscal analysts have only hazy ideas in predicting how much tokers could generate in taxes. The unknowns include how many people are buying pot now, what theyĺre paying, how many people will start smoking marijuana now that itĺs legal and whether prices will drop once commercial sales begin. If the federal government blocks commercial pot sales, the marijuana tax windfall would be zero.

Colorado regulators reviewed mixed tax projections and seemed exasperated at even trying to guess what the market will be.

ôItĺs all a mythical figure. Weĺre talking about an industry that doesnĺt exist today,ö said Tamra Ward, head of a Denver business group called Colorado Connect.

In Washington, the only other state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, the tax picture is clearer.

Voters there set 25 percent taxes at each of three different stages ľ from growers to processors to consumers. The measure also defined exact spending levels on things such as education. For example, Washington will spend exactly $20,000 on Web-based education about the health and safety risks of marijuana.

Coloradoĺs task force finally settled on a vague recommendation asking state lawmakers to set sales taxes and add licensing fees steep enough to cover the costs of regulation. Theyĺll leave it to lawmakers to figure out those exact costs.

Task force members also made recommendations Thursday about regulations unrelated to taxes, including a first-of-its-kind regulation on a ôserving sizeö for edible marijuana. The task force agreed that a ôservingö of edible pot should be 10 nanograms of THC, marijuanaĺs psychoactive ingredient. Edible pot products will have to be sold in childproof packages with a label clearly saying there may be health risks from consuming it.