President Donald Trump’s plan to crack down on recreational marijuana could blow a hole in the budgets of states that have come to rely on new tax revenue from pot sales to pay for everything from road repairs to schools.
The Democratic governors of Washington state and Colorado, the first states that voted to legalize the drug for recreational purposes, in 2012, say their experiments have worked and that the federal government should not intervene.
“Money is now going into schools instead of marijuana dealers on the sidewalk, and frankly that is not an unhealthy thing,” said Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, who returned home Tuesday after spending the weekend in Washington, D.C., at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
Marijuana tax revenues nearly doubled in Washington state in 2016 compared with the previous year, hitting $256 million. Inslee said they could exceed $700 million in the next two years.
In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper last month proposed that his state – which collected nearly $200 million in marijuana tax revenue last year – increase the sales tax on recreational pot as a way to funnel more money to public schools.
With so much money now on the line, more states want to cash in: Lawmakers in another 18 states already have introduced bills this year to legalize recreational marijuana, though they’ve been defeated in Mississippi and Wyoming.
Fears of a pending crackdown are growing after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that he was “dubious about marijuana.”
“States, you know, can pass whatever laws they choose, but I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store,” he said in a speech at the winter meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General. “We’ll have to work our way through that.”
Sessions’ remarks came only days after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the Department of Justice would use the federal law banning marijuana to crack down on recreational pot sales while allowing states to regulate the drug for medical use.
“I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement,” Spicer said.
Inslee, who met Trump for the first time at the White House on Monday, said marijuana issues were never discussed. He said he has been unable to meet with Sessions, despite making a request.
But after his state led the fight against Trump’s travel ban last month, Inslee is feeling confident, saying Washington state already is looking at “litigation options” to keep its marijuana system intact while hoping the administration is not serious about trying to shut it down.
“We are now on the clear side of where history is going in our nation, and many states are following our lead,” Inslee said in an interview. “Of all the chaotic fights that the administration is having, this is not one that they need right now.”
While six other states followed Washington and Colorado in legalizing recreational marijuana – California, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine, Alaska and Oregon – legislation is pending in 16 others: Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont. That’s according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group that tracks state pot-related bills around the nation.
Pot backers say the president would be hard-pressed to put the brakes on such a fast-growing industry even if he tried.
“You’d see thousands of people out of work,” said Mason Tvert, a spokesman in Denver for the Marijuana Policy Project. “States have been leading the way on marijuana policy reform and we can expect to see that continue.”
Critics say legalization backers overstate the benefits and fail to account for the rising social costs that states face with increased drug use.
Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, an opponent of legalization, predicted that states that have voted to legalize recreational marijuana are “going to be sorry they did.”
“The claim that they’re going to get a lot of tax money out of this is going to be offset tremendously by the social consequences and the dangers of this,” he said.
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Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said states with legal marijuana were only “reliving the painful history of our experience with Big Tobacco.”
“While advocates are quick to tout tax revenue as a counterbalance . . . like with the lottery, this is not materializing,” he said. “In Washington state, over half of the revenue promised for drug prevention and treatment programs never came about. And in Colorado, bureaucracy to regulate the industry continues to consume a large percentage of the revenue made.”
The states’ governors view the situation much differently.
Colorado now puts its pot tax revenues into a fund for school construction, allowing the state to fix or replace schools. And state lawmakers created a “marijuana tax cash fund” that distributes revenue to local governments that have allowed retail marijuana sales.
Hickenlooper, who was also in Washington for the National Governors Association meeting, went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday to defend his state’s marijuana program, calling it “one of the great social experiments of our time.”
Even though he opposed the state’s ballot initiative that legalized marijuana in 2012, Hickenlooper said states “have a sovereignty, just like the Indian tribes” to proceed on their own.
“We didn’t see a spike in teenage use,” he said. “If anything, it came down in the last year. And we’re getting anecdotal reports of less drug dealers.”
Inslee, who also opposed his state’s legalization initiative, is fully on board now, saying he will be “diligent in protecting the public’s will.”
As the co-chairman of the National Governors Association Education and Workforce Committee, Inslee helped open the winter meeting last Saturday, touting the value of early childhood education.
He said that some of the pot tax revenue that went into the state’s general fund could now be used to help pay to educate young kids. He’s hoping those revenues continue to grow, saying voters are more amenable to raising money through pot taxes than through property taxes. And he said it was easier to pitch marijuana these days, with more Republicans and seniors using it, particularly for medicinal reasons.
“They were never at Woodstock, and they don’t watch Cheech and Chong movies,” Inslee said.
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob
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