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No reason to hurry pot-tax vote

It's understandable that the Jackson County commissioners want to reserve the county's place in line for a share of the tax windfall that might or might not result from the sale of legal recreational marijuana sometime in 2016. But the county is poised to spend $100,000 it doesn't need to spend to ask voters to approve a local option tax that might not survive a court challenge.

County leaders cannot simply enact a tax, as city governments across the state have done. The law requires voter approval of taxes at the county level. That explains the election. It doesn't explain the hurry.

The commissioners enacted the tax, subject to voter approval, before the November election when voters statewide legalized recreational marijuana. Rather than wait for the statewide primary election on May 19, the commissioners have opted to hold a special election March 10. That means the county is responsible for the cost, which County Clerk Chris Walker estimates at $100,000.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering a number of questions related to the legalization measure voters approved in November. One of those is whether to overturn the portion of Ballot Measure 91 that bars local jurisdictions from enacting their own taxes.

But Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, says lawmakers are unlikely to make drastic changes to the voter-approved law, especially where it concerns taxes. The reasoning behind that clause is to keep the tax low enough to allow legal marijuana to drive out the black market. If the tax is too high, illegal sellers will undercut the legal product.

Many cities and counties enacted local taxes before the November election in the hope they would be "grandfathered in" and allowed to tax marijuana despite the clear language of the measure. Even if Jackson County's tax proposal passes — a big if — it couldn't take effect unless a court overturned the local-option ban in Measure 91. And in any case, retail sales of marijuana won't happen until 2016.

So the county is rushing to seek voter approval for a tax that might never be imposed. Even if it is declared legal by the courts, the tax wouldn't be collected on recreational marijuana until 2016, because no retail sales will happen until then. 

Buckley advised the county to "wait a few years to see what happens." That's good advice. The commissioners could start by waiting two months and saving $100,000.