Marijuana scholarships: good idea for a Colorado city?

Despite national news reports of controversy, marijuana growers, legislators and Pueblo residents seem largely supportive of the city's marijuana scholarship tax.

David Zalubowski/AP
An unidentified pot reveler carries a modified version of the state flag of Colorado during activities on the unofficial marijuana holiday Monday, April 20, 2015, in Denver.

College-bound students in Pueblo, Colorado will have access to almost $2 million in additional scholarship funds, thanks to marijuana. 

Sixty percent of voters in Pueblo approved a measure in November that added an additional five percent excise tax on Colorado’s marijuana suppliers, and each year 50 percent of the tax’s proceeds will be set aside for college scholarships. Starting in 2017, the pot tax will gradually phase in until it reaches 5 percent, about $3.5 million, in 2020. 

Pundits and journalists alike have reported controversy on the issue. They suggest the pot-funded scholarship is a dangerous contradiction: How can schools prevent marijuana abuse if it is the same drug’s sales that fund students’ higher education prospects? 

But to a large extent, marijuana growers, legislators, and Pueblo residents seem to be supportive of the scholarship tax.

The tax is a smart initiative, not a burden; say leaders in the field of marijuana cultivation.

“Businesses in the cannabis industry are interested in showing that they are a contributing member of the overall economic community,” Taylor West, deputy director at the National Cannabis Industry Association, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday. “So having the opportunity to contribute to something that will benefit the overall community is something they are willing to be supportive of. People are happy that the industry can make a contribution to the community.”

And as for the city’s pot industry, Pueblo stands apart from its fellow 53 Colorado cities that allow recreational marijuana sales. Pueblo County accounts for 3 percent of all recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, but 20 percent of the state’s recreational pot production. 

Marijuana farmers say Pueblo’s sunny and flat plains are ideal for large cultivation sites. Along with the city’s conducive conditions, the “Silicon Valley” of the weed farming industry has taken a number of steps to make the city a welcoming oasis for weed farmers. Pueblo officials announced a $4.89 million incentives package in October to lure marijuana growers to take over an old Boeing plant. And because of its ample water supply from the Arkansas River basin is controlled locally, Pueblo has given marijuana growers the same water rights as traditional farmers. 

Some local leaders agree with marijuana retailers that they are not seeing the controversy discussed by national news realized at the local level. 

“The conflict that has been brought up, I have only seen it in national news. It hasn’t been felt on the ground at all. The first time I heard this argument was when I read it in a [national news] story,” Sal Pace, a Pueblo County commissioner, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday. “At the end of the day, who would rather have these funds go to Mexican drug cartels, instead of providing hope and opportunity to funding our kids education?” 

While high school graduation rates have increased from 60.5 percent in 2010 to 71.9 percent in 2014 in Pueblo city schools, the city’s graduation rate continues to fall below the state average, which was 77.3 percent in 2014. And the US Census Bureau reports that 21.5 percent of Pueblo County citizens earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, far below the 37 percent statewide average. 

“If we are cutting someone’s college education bill, they don’t necessarily know which dollar came from marijuana,” Mr. Pace tells The Monitor. The important thing is that more students will have the opportunity to pursue higher education.

And it's not just marijuana farmers and legislators who support the tax. Pace says the 60 percent voting approval by Pueblo residents should not be underestimated.

“The voters have clearly stated that marijuana funds should be used to educate our kids,” he adds. 

The scholarship funds will be available next year to any Pueblo County student who wishes to attend Colorado State University-Pueblo or Pueblo Community College, as long as they meet the university’s admission requirements. 

But despite her overall enthusiasm about the scholarship tax, West, deputy director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, warns that legislators and voters shouldn’t get carried away with too much "do-good taxation."

“If you are levying prices that keep causing prices to continue to rise, they could leave room for an underground market to survive and flourish,” she tells The Monitor. “There is a rate at which this is no longer a successful situation [for either party]. Always something that has to be kept in mind.”

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