Where Does Colorado's Marijuana Money Go?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We want to start the program today by turning to an issue that a number of voters will be considering this November - that is whether to legalize marijuana for medicinal or recreational use. Voters in eight states will have some form of this question on the ballot. So we thought this would be a good time to see how things are developing in one of the first states to take that step - Colorado.
Voters approved recreational marijuana use there in 2012, and the new laws took effect two years ago. To find out how things are going, we reached Ricardo Baca, editor of The Cannabist, a project of The Denver Post. He joins us from Denver via Skype. Ricardo, thanks so much for joining us once again.
RICARDO BACA: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: So let's start by talking about money. One of the arguments for legalizing marijuana is that states can capture some of the revenue through taxes. So what kind of revenue has the state seen from marijuana sales? And has it been bringing in as much money as lawmakers thought it would?
BACA: You know, if we look back to 2015, we saw almost a billion dollars in sales and about 135 million just coming in to Colorado via pot taxes. This year, we're definitely going to surpass that billion dollar number. It's going to look 1.2, 1.3 billion for just marijuana sales. That includes recreational and medical. And then, the taxes are going to look somewhere around 150 to 170 million purely in cannabis taxes.
MARTIN: So what is the money being used for?
BACA: It's going to an assortment of places. The state funds are primarily going toward education - teaching youth about the potential risks and what we know, also teaching adults about how to treat this newly legal substance. You know, schools are also a big focal point.
When Colorado voters voted on Amendment 64 in 2012, we were promised that the first $40 million of this specific recreational excise tax was going to go toward capital school construction. And so that's a big part of it, too. But then you see the different municipalities that are able to disseminate the money however they choose. And so we're seeing cities give it to homelessness or creating college scholarships with pot taxes.
MARTIN: So I understand, though, there are some jurisdictions that are actually moving in the other direction. They're actually trying to terminate marijuana sales and terminate the retail operations. Where is this happening? How widespread a movement is that?
BACA: You know, it's not too widespread. But we've given complete control to these localities, so they can decide whether or not they want recreational marijuana in their backyard. And so what we saw in the midterm elections two years ago, a small town outside of Colorado Springs, there was a small contingent there that said, hey, maybe we don't want this recreational marijuana. And the city voted on it, and they voted to end up keeping the retail cannabis.
This year, you have a much larger city. Pueblo is about two hours south of Denver right here, and they are voting in November on repealing recreational marijuana in Pueblo. And so it's not super widespread, but it is growing effort.
MARTIN: What are their arguments, for Pueblo, for example? What are they saying?
BACA: Yeah, they're concerned about the impact it might be having on their kids - having these businesses, you know. Maybe when they drive to church on Sunday they're driving past a cultivation. A lot has also been made, in Pueblo specifically, about what they're calling urban travelers - these homeless or semi-homeless folks who are finding their way to Colorado now to be around these relaxed marijuana laws.
MARTIN: So before I let you go, tell me about your role as editor of The Cannabist. How has that changed over time? And also, does part of your job include sampling the wares?
BACA: Sure, yeah. You know, I'm a journalist. And I'm very straightforward a journalist in this conversation. I think some people mistake what we do for activism, and that's understandable. But we're reporting the good and the bad, the triumphs and the failures, in this conversation. And that's strictly what I limit my contribution to. In terms of sampling, yeah, I am a marijuana user. But you know, I hire people to be my pot critics, and I'm more in the background. But in fact, I've actually turned around - I prefer marijuana to alcohol, and that's part of the normalization that we've been living through in Denver the last three years.
MARTIN: That's Ricardo Baca. He's editor of the website The Cannabist. It's also a podcast. It is part of The Denver Post. He was kind enough to join us from Denver via Skype. Ricardo, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BACA: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And you might be interested to know that this fall NPR reported on the implications of the recreational pot ballot initiatives, including how legalization is changing family life, policing and the effect of marijuana on the brain. You can check out all of the stories that we reported on our website npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.