Colorado raises $150 million from marijuana. Will more states legalize?

Colorado has collected so much marijuana tax revenue that a state law may return some of it to the public. But legalizing pot is not a quick budget fix, lawmakers say.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
A customer pays cash for retail marijuana at 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, in May 2014. Colorado’s marijuana experiment was designed to raise tax revenue for the state and its schools, but a state law may put some of the money directly into residents’ pockets. The state constitution limits how much tax money the state can take in before it has to give some back.

Colorado has brought in more than $150 million in marijuana tax revenue, according to official state data.

That doesn't make it a budgetary panacea, warn lawmakers. 

"The big lesson we tell other states is you probably shouldn't legalize marijuana if you want to make money – that's not why you do it," said J. Skyler McKinley, deputy director of the governor's Office of Marijuana Coordination, to the Huffington Post. "You do it because you think that a regulated marketplace might be safer than an unregulated marketplace, or you believe that the war on drugs didn't work."

A representative from Washington – which has raised about $83 million in taxes since becoming the second state to legalize marijuana sales – agreed.

"The legalization initiative was not driven by a desire for a revenue, but it has provided a small assist for our state budget," said Jaime Smith, deputy communications director for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, to the Huffington Post. "When you’re looking for billions of dollars, tens of millions doesn’t solve the problem – but it certainly doesn’t hurt."

Back in February, CNN reported that sales tax had brought in only $53 million in Colorado, a figure that fell short of analysts' projections and suggested that consumers were turned off by the 28 percent tax on legal pot.

But this summer, state officials reported that marijuana tax revenues were up nearly 100 percent, according to ABC7 Denver. Revenue jumped from $25 million in the first five months of 2014 to $44 million in the same period this year.

Colorado began directing some marijuana revenue toward school and research programs in May, including providing grants to public school districts and charter schools, an education official told The Huffington Post. Almost $24 million was allocated to the Building Excellent Schools Today program, said Kevin Huber.

"I have no problem paying taxes if they’re going to schools," local pot consumer Maddy Beaumier told Counter Current News as he shopped at a marijuana dispensary.

But while marijuana is pouring millions of dollars into Colorado's treasury – over $152 million since 2012, according to state revenue reports of sales taxes and licensing fees – it comes with its own high regulatory costs, warn lawmakers.

"Our philosophy has been that marijuana pays its own way," said Colorado's Mr. McKinley. "Every dime we bring in from legalization is dedicated to the cost of legalization. That's regulatory framework first, then public education campaigns about safe and responsible use and then prevention and treatment programs."

Currently, Colorado is facing an unusual problem for a state: too much revenue.

Colorado's "Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights" requires the state to issue refunds to taxpayers if revenue exceeds projections, reports The New York Times. Coloradans will vote in November on whether the state should spend the money or return it to citizens.

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