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Jackson County voters approve pot tax

Jackson County voters Tuesday night voted to allow county officials to impose up to a 25 percent tax on marijuana sales inside the county.

Election results posted at 8 p.m. showed ballot Measure 15-133 winning by 64.01 percent, with 27,191 "yes" votes to 15,287 "no" votes. Early numbers put voter turnout at 35.88 percent, with all 54 precincts reporting. The measure's placement on the ballot by county commissioners follows decisions by the city governments of Medford, Ashland, Central Point and Gold Hill to tax marijuana sales following the November passage of state ballot Measure 91, which legalizes recreational possession of marijuana starting July 1. The county tax will not apply to incorporated cities within the county, or to individuals growing marijuana for their own recreational or medical use.

Ballot Measure 91 imposes an excise tax on marijuana plants and products at the wholesale level but expressly prohibits local governments from imposing their own taxes on marijuana sales. As written, 40 percent of state tax revenues will go to the Common School Fund, 20 percent to mental health, alcoholism and drug treatment, 15 percent to state police, 20 percent to local law enforcement and 5 percent to the Oregon Health Authority. Many city and county governments have imposed taxes anyway, arguing that they'd be grandfathered in if passed before July and that the taxes are needed to pay for the local social impacts of legalization.

Commissioner Doug Breidenthal, the board's chair and one of the proponents of the county tax, told the Mail Tribune in January that he was confident that strategy would withstand a legal challenge. “There’s nothing in (Measure 91) that will take our (ordinance) off the books," he said. Attempts to reach Breidenthal for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

David Fidanque, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which helped draft Measure 91, has been one of the leading critics of local taxation in the wake of the measure's passage, arguing that it will create a "hodgepodge" of regulation that will help the black market retain its appeal.

"The yin and the yang of this is that if the goal is to eliminate the criminal market, the price of recreational marijuana needs to be relatively low," Fidanque said Tuesday. "If the local governments feel that funds are not going where they need to go, they can appeal to the Legislature to change the allocations or the percentages of the allocations."

Elections officials had counted an "under vote" of 40 as of 8 p.m., representing the number of voters who cast ballots without a choice for either option.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.