Commissioners: Pot tax could fund local solution for mental health issues (column) | VailDaily.com

Commissioners: Pot tax could fund local solution for mental health issues (column)

Eagle County Board of Commissioners
Valley Voices

Editor's note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.

"Creating a better Eagle County for all." That's the mission of Eagle County government, and as the board of county commissioners, we are committed to furthering this mission.

Earlier this year, we named "increasing mental health and substance abuse services" as a 2017 area of focus for the county. We are seeing an increase in need, and currently residents have to travel one to two-plus hours to find a better spectrum of services.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 18 percent of U.S. residents have a mental illness and 8 percent have a substance-use disorder. So far in 2017, we have lost 10 residents to suicide. According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, nearly 25 percent of local teens report feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more and 15 percent have seriously considered attempting suicide. Most alarming is that our seventh- and eighth-graders are increasingly reporting feelings of sadness and suicidal thoughts.

Behavioral health services — those that address mental health and substance abuse — are poorly funded in Colorado. Eagle County government receives no state or federal funding for these services. Mind Springs is our community's only public mental-health provider, and it covers an entire region on the Western Slope, so services in any one area are limited.

Additional state funding is unlikely given Colorado's structural budget woes, with competing amendments that both dictate and limit revenue collection. For more than a decade, Eagle County government and other partners have struggled to cobble together a social detoxification program. Historically, these services have been provided in a facility associated with law enforcement, such as a jail or sheriff's satellite station. Individuals experiencing a serious mental health issue or substance abuse crisis are usually transported to the emergency department or to Grand Junction or Pueblo, where beds are limited.

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Eagle County and our partners have a vision for making a continuum of affordable and accessible behavioral health services available in Eagle County. This includes increasing the capacity for walk-in services, regardless of insurance status; increasing the availability of social detoxification services, with referral and follow-up treatment options; and a crisis stabilization unit that provides short-term, in-patient assessment and care by mental health professionals. Many of these services could be co-located in a one-stop-shop model.

With the realization that without new funding, Eagle County residents are likely to experience the status quo of inadequate services, the Eagle County Commissioners are proposing a small tax on the local marijuana industry to go toward behavioral health services. Recent legislation now allows counties to impose both excise and sales taxes on recreational marijuana in unincorporated areas. Although cities and towns have always had the ability to collect these taxes, the county has been limited to a portion of state tax collections, amounting to less than $250,000 per year — just about enough to fund our licensing program.

After a few years of allowing retail marijuana businesses to find their footing, we met with the industry and asked for their help in addressing behavioral health services. They agreed. It appears our residents agree, as well. According to a recent poll, the community overwhelmingly supports using marijuana tax revenue to create additional mental health and substance abuse services.

We anticipate moving forward with a ballot measure in 2017 to ask voters for approval to tax both recreational sales and the growing of recreational marijuana. This combination of retail sales tax and excise tax does not include the sale or growth of medical marijuana. It also does not include personal or private grows that are not intended for retail sales. As proposed, $1.2 million per year generated by these combined taxes would be dedicated for mental health services.

People with mental illness wait an average of 10 years to seek treatment, and 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. We feel the time is now for a bold, local approach to mental health. Please let us know what you think. We can be reached anytime at eagleadmin@eaglecounty.us.

Jill Ryan, Kathy Chandler-Henry and Jeanne McQueeney are Eagle County commissioners.

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