Editorial: Eagle County marijuana tax proposal earns a cautious recommendation | VailDaily.com

Editorial: Eagle County marijuana tax proposal earns a cautious recommendation

Vail Daily Editorial Board
Our View

Recommending a "yes" vote on Eagle County Ballot Issue 1A is more difficult than supporters would have you believe.

The ballot issue proposes imposing a gradually increasing county sales tax of up to 5 percent on retail marijuana sales, with an additional excise tax of up to 5 percent — also in increasing increments — on marijuana produced in the county.

The two taxes would be new — the county currently only shares in state taxes that return about $250,000 per year, which goes into the county's general fund. The new taxes would raise an estimated $1.2 million in the first year. That money, and the first $1.2 million per year afterward, will be spent on bolstering mental-health services in the county. Plans for new facilities, including one in Edwards, will be built with funds from a separate capital campaign.

If there's excess revenue raised, then the pro-1A website states it would be used for "community services."

The new tax revenue would help cover unfilled needs in the county, in both the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys.

There are currently no in-patient beds for mental health treatment in the county. With the exception of medical detox, patients requiring in-patient, or even short-term, help now must go to either Grand Junction or the Denver area. But medical detox is a fast-growing problem in this part of the county.

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According to Vail Health, detox "patient encounters" have risen from 210 cases in 2014 to 511 in 2016.

Eagle County's suicide rate is also among the highest in the state — with more than 10 lives prematurely ended so far this year — and there's not enough help for those whose lives are spiraling out of control.

Money is needed for walk-in clinics, respite care, crisis care and dedicated detox units. The money raised from the new taxes — taxes supported by those in the local retail marijuana industry — would help current providers with staffing and programming.

Given the willingness of the industry and the demonstrated need, this seems to be an easy call.

It isn't.

First, taxing marijuana for dedicated uses carries some risk. The price of wholesale pot has been falling, raising questions about the revenue estimates. Then there's the fact that marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Until Congress changes that, there's always the prospect that the feds may someday pull the plug on this burgeoning industry.

Also, $1.2 million per year doesn't cover all the needs. The marijuana tax is a good step, but only a first step, in creating a mental-health system that meets our community's needs. Grants are available for some of that funding, but local entities will also have to step up, particularly for one-time expenses for facilities.

There seem to be ample reserves available in both public and private coffers to handle many of those expenses. Those entities must be willing to step up and write some checks.

As an aside, while some opponents of the proposal are advocating for using nothing but reserve funds to expand mental-health facilities, that's an inappropriate use of public money. Reserves should be used for prudent, one-time expenses. And while the reserve totals appear impressive, part of those funds are essentially locked away due to the requirements of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, a 1992 amendment to the state constitution. For the rest, local officials are fond of saying we're only one bad season from spending down those funds.

With all that in mind, Ballot Issue 1A is still worthy of your support. It's a concrete step to show our community is willing and able to help our friends, neighbors and visitors in sometimes life-threatening need.

The Vail Daily Editorial Board is Publisher Mark Wurzer, Editor Krista Driscoll and Business Editor Scott Miller.