The Colorado General Assembly should not look at revenue from taxes on marijuana as found money to be spent on new programs. The state has obligations that come first – and chief among them is its responsibility to fund Colorado schools.
Still, faced with a January haul of $3.5 million from taxes on pot – recreational and medical – state officials are already looking at new spending ideas. Gov. John Hickenlooper would fund anti-drug messages targeting children and an ad campaign to discourage driving under the influence of pot. As the Associated Press reported Tuesday, police chiefs from around the state are also asking for some of the marijuana money. As state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, told the AP, “The whole world wants to belly up to this trough.”
But it is unclear how much money will be available. In January, Colorado took in $2 million from more than $14 million worth of sales of recreational marijuana. That money came from Colorado’s regular 2.9 percent sales tax, a special 10 percent sales tax on recreational pot and a 15 percent excise tax at what amounts to the wholesale level. The 2012 ballot issue legalizing recreational pot set aside the first $40 million from the excise tax for school construction.
Recreational pot sales in January yield an annual sales rate less than $170 million. But the state’s official, nonpartisan voters guide for 2012 projected annual sales of recreational pot of $400 million. That might be low; actual sales of medical marijuana in Colorado for 2013 were $330 million.
It will not be enough to make the state flush, at least not in any honest sense. Since the recession of 2008, Colorado has cut spending on education by a total of roughly $1 billion. On a moral level, that is money we owe our schools, our children and ourselves. Marijuana revenue will not make that up any time soon, but while that billion-dollar debt is out there, how can anyone advocate new spending?
Our lawmakers should stop fantasizing about all this new money and apply it instead to making the state’s schools whole.