The Legislature should not raid marijuana tax revenues to balance the state budget.
State tax revenues from legal marijuana sales, which began last summer, hit $33 million by the end of March. The total has risen steadily each month for the last nine months, as the recreational pot market authorized by Initiative 502 lurches to its feet.
That revenue is estimated to skyrocket up, potentially to $900 million over the next four years, if the Legislature finally gets a handle on the unregulated medical marijuana market.
Rising revenue is proving to be like a candy dish for lawmakers now trying to balance the state budget. It is very tempting, but raiding marijuana tax revenues to pay for services not intended by the ballot measure ultimately is bad for the state’s collective health.
Lawmakers from both parties and both chambers propose to do so. The Republican-led Senate budget does this most aggressively, eliminating the Dedicated Marijuana Fund created by I-502, and shifting most of the money to education. The Democratic-led House budget makes similar cuts.
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What’s lost in that cash-grab are the services that voters were promised when they approved I-502 in 2012. The initiative promised a big expansion of marijuana education and prevention services with marijuana tax proceeds — an investment to mitigate the known and expected future consequences of marijuana legalization, especially for the under-21 age group.
The need for a comprehensive education and prevention regime is underscored by the 2014 state Healthy Use Survey, which found significant declines in the percentages of 10th and 12th graders who say they believe there are risks in weekly marijuana use.
Neither Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration nor the Legislature prepaid for prevention and education before the marijuana revenues began rolling in. That mistake will be compounded if lawmakers approve a wholesale diversion of earmarked funds now that the marijuana tax revenue has materialized.
Initiatives can be amended with a majority of the Legislature after two years, and I-502’s revenue allotments do need to be tweaked. For example, I-502’s revenue distribution clearly should be changed to give cities and counties an incentive to open their borders to legal marijuana stores. Absent that incentive, municipal prohibitions on the stores empower the black market.
But this incentive must not come at the cost of prevention and education programs promised to voters in 2012. The need for them is clear. The revenue is there. The Legislature must ensure it is used for what voters intended.