When Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 legalizing recreational marijuana use in November, Gov. John Hickenlooper told its supporters that it was too soon to break out munchies like “Cheetos or Goldfish” because there was much work to be done regulating this new industry.
It may still be too soon to celebrate.
Lawmakers grappling with how to tax marijuana have been working behind the scenes on a plan to repeal the historic law if voters don’t pass their preferred taxing scheme, according to both supporters and opponents of the pot law.
Colorado has complicated tax laws, including a requirement that voters must approve any new taxes at the ballot box. Amendment 64 also requires lawmakers present voters with a taxing option.
But some legislators are worried that those who voted in favor of legalizing marijuana — by a margin of 55-45 — wouldn’t be so enthusiastic to approve a proposed taxation package.
The taxation scheme includes a one-time 15 percent excise tax from cultivator to retailer, a special 15 percent marijuana-product tax and the regular 2.9 percent state sales tax.
Even though those rates might not be enough to cover the costs of regulation and enforcement of the marijuana industry, if the taxes are rejected outright, the state will be on the hook for the entire cost of regulation and oversight, with no assistance from taxes at all (outside the regular sales tax, which doesn’t require a vote).
In the event of this worse case scenario, lawmakers have been drafting a bill that would ask voters a two-part question — one about taxes and another about repealing Amendment 64 if the tax plan isn’t passed. 9News reports that some lawmakers are trying to tie the two together, making repeal automatic if voters reject the taxes.
“Placing such a measure on the ballot would amount to extortion of the voters,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project in a statement. “Voters will be told that they must vote for whatever taxes the legislators choose in order to prevent the repeal of the constitutional amendment they approved last November.”
“We are surprised that legislators are even taking this proposal seriously.”
An anti-marijuana group called Smart Colorado supports the proposal, but didn’t come up with the idea, says a spokesman quoted in the Denver Post.
“We talked to many legislators about the concept throughout the day,” spokesman Eric Anderson said in a statement to the paper. “Although it’s not our proposal, we appreciate the leadership demonstrated by its authors and believe it’s worthy of consideration.”
“If voters don’t now approve new taxes on marijuana,” he added, “Colorado’s budget will take a major hit and Amendment 64 will have exactly the opposite effect from what was promised to voters.”
Ballot measures that change the state constitution require passage by two-thirds of the legislature, and with less than two weeks to go before the end of the session, it’s not clear that supporters of the idea can muster enough votes.
Tvert also argues that only fiscal matters can appear on the Colorado ballot in odd-numbered years.
“A repeal of Amendment 64 would be on the subject of marijuana regulations,” he wrote in a press release, ”as well as the right of individuals under the Colorado State Constitution to possess and consume marijuana.”
Amendment 64 supporters have already hired a lawyer to fight a repeal attempt.
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