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Cost is a poor excuse for local pot tax

Jackson County last week became the latest local government to slap a tax on recreational marijuana, just in case Ballot Measure 91 passes and just in case the courts throw out clear language in the measure prohibiting local taxes. County commissioners cited increased costs to the county if marijuana is legalized, but have provided no specifics. They should do so before asking voters to approve a new tax.

The county tax isn't official yet, and would go to voters next March if Measure 91 passes. In addition to a 25 percent tax on the sale of recreational marijuana, the commissioners endorsed the same tax rate for medical cannabis.

Measure 91 includes a statewide tax of $35 per ounce on marijuana flowers, $10 per ounce on leaves and $5 per immature plant. The revenue would be shared among state and local governments, with 40 percent going to schools, 35 percent to state and local law enforcement and 25 percent to drug treatment, prevention and mental health programs.    

Measure 91 says the state marijuana law, "designed to operate uniformly throughout the state, shall be paramount and superior to and shall fully replace and supersede any and all municipal charter enactments or local ordinances inconsistent with it. Such charters and ordinances hereby are repealed."

That sounds clear enough to us, but it hasn't stopped cities and counties across the state from enacting taxes in hopes of being "grandfathered in" if the measure passes. We're not lawyers or judges; the courts will have to sort that out if the time comes.

The sudden desire of local officials to tax recreational marijuana, we suspect, is motivated more by opposition to legalization than by any desire to capitalize on a new retail industry. It's fine to have concerns about the unknown consequences of legalizing marijuana use, and we share some of those concerns. The Legislature might need to make changes in the law as circumstances warrant.

But it's hard to see how Measure 91 would impose any significant costs on local governments that they don't already incur. Police now spend time and resources chasing illegal marijuana growers and sellers; it's logical to suppose that burden would be less under legalization. Collecting and enforcing a sales tax, moreover, would represent new costs to the county and to local municipalities.

The tax rate written into Measure 91 was carefully calculated to keep the retail price low enough that it wouldn't encourage more black-market sales. Piling local option taxes on top of that could have that unintended effect.

The marijuana taxes are considered low-hanging fruit by officials in some cities and counties where they would not expect to get pushback from the usual anti-tax crowd. That and their opposition to marijuana in the first place seem to be fueling the rush to pump up the price of pot. But if the statewide measure passes, they owe it to their constituents to prove their case before piling on with more taxes and bureaucracy.