Colorado Marijuana Tax Revenue Presents Chance to Dream Big

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March 3, 2014 - By Art Way

Nearly two months since the historic start of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, the state is getting its first glimpse at the resulting tax revenue.  Projections for the first full year of sales are more than a whopping $180 million. Gov. John Hickenlooper recently announced his plan to allocate this infusion of cash in Colorado.

The governor requested more than half of the revenue for substance abuse and treatment, and for youth prevention efforts. As required by the state’s voter-approved marijuana law, nearly half of the remaining $90 million is designated to the BEST fund that supports public school construction, primarily upgrading inner city and building rural schools. The remaining funds are parceled out between law enforcement, public health and regulatory oversight.

At first glance, the governor’s proposal addresses marijuana use from a public health perspective, especially its focus on youth prevention.  However, close observers worry the public education effort could resemble the notoriously ineffective DARE program (more aptly, SCARE 2.0).  The concern is that grants provided to school health professionals to deliver education within schools would favor the current prevention and treatment establishment.  This is a group of practitioners once dependent on marijuana prohibition for clients and likely dependent upon further demonization of the substance for educational and treatment purposes.  The end result is a biased approach that fosters fear over knowledge, and we lose the ear and respect of those we most want to reach.  Although less than ideal, this approach is preferable to using the revenue to criminalize youth or build abusive treatment facilities like those run by opponents of legalization.

The proposed budget often appears to solve a problem where none is likely to exist.  Legalization did not introduce marijuana to Colorado.  The market has simply shifted from the underground to rule of law.

How about we utilize this new revenue stream to begin building an infrastructure to address the entire issue of drug use and addiction from a public health, evidence based perspective?

We do see glimpses of a public health approach in the proposed budget, but then the excitement wanes upon further reading.  For example, money is directed toward intensive inpatient and outpatient services for mental health and substance abuse disorders.  But upon further reading we see marijuana users as the targets for this expansion of “intensive” treatment.  That money should help addicts on the chaotic end of the drug use and treatment spectrum – a place rarely if ever held by marijuana users.

Another example involves funds directed to assist with substance abuse and mental health services in schools.  Sounds great until we read grants are prioritized for those providing education on the harms of marijuana specifically.  Given where kids are at these days concerning their drug choices, why not focus on education around synthetic drugs?  Why not fund needed and proven evidence based practices such as after school activities and restorative justice programs?

All in all, I believe the governor’s plan provides some positive wiggle room to use the revenue from Amendment 64 to address drug use from a public health perspective.  As usual, the devil lies within the implementing details.

We have an opportunity to not just focus on potential harms of marijuana.  Evidence based practices such as treatment in the community for those addicted to more harmful substances should be more prominently featured.  Lastly, we need reality based education for youth that focuses on safety over abstinence.

Art Way is the senior drug policy manager in Colorado for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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