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Marijuana tax referendum to be put before voters next June

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LAKE COUNTY — The legalization of recreational marijuana, approved by voters in Lake County and statewide during the November 2020 general election, edges ever closer to reality, with sales slated to begin Jan.1. 

For local governments, legalization could mean additional tax income, pending the outcome of a countywide ballot measure, and some additional headaches.

“I didn’t vote to legalize marijuana and I think it’s a mistake,” said Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron during a meeting last Monday in the commissioners’ chambers in Polson. “I’m old school when it comes to drugs and law enforcement.”

That said, Barron joined fellow commissioners Gale Decker and Steve Stanley in voting to place a tax referendum before voters next June. As currently worded, the referendum will ask voters to vote for or against a 3% tax on medical marijuana sales in Lake County, and for or against imposing a 3% tax on recreational marijuana. 

The all-mail election is slated for June 7, and the tax, if approved, takes effect Sept. 5. A public meeting on the referendum will be held Jan. 10 at the courthouse. 

While Barron had initially supported a simple referendum on whether to tax all marijuana sales at 3%, Decker and Stanley prevailed on the plan to separate the taxation of recreational from medical marijuana on the ballot. 

“I think voters should have a say,” Stanley said. “If voters feel the way we do – that we’re doing it strictly to raise money – they can vote to tax both. We have to have an election so why not give them a chance to weigh in.”

The election is estimated to cost around $20,000, with the county paying for half and the three incorporated towns of Polson, Ronan and St. Ignatius splitting the remainder in proportion to their respective populations. 

Likewise, 50% of any revenue generated by the local excise tax would go to the county, with the remaining 45% split between the three communities, based on population, and 5% going to the Department of Revenue to defray administrative costs.

The tax, if approved, would land on top of the tax assessed by the state of 20% for recreational and 4% for medical marijuana. 

Barron, a former county sheriff, predicts the legalization of recreational marijuana will impact law enforcement and healthcare across the state. He notes that current strains of marijuana are much more potent than when he was in law enforcement, and could lead to driving impairment and health issues. 

His concerns are not unfounded. According to an article published last spring in Politico, there’s a nationwide movement among politicians, law enforcement and concerned parents to cap the level of THC (the ingredient in marijuana that gets users high). So far only Vermont limits THC potency. While data is sketchy – largely because marijuana is still illegal under federal law – contemporary products are estimated to be three to four times more potent than pot seized by the feds 25 years ago.

“We’re taking a step back in my eyes from a law enforcement perspective,” Barron said. 

According to Deputy County Attorney James Lapotka, blood draws offer an accurate tool for law enforcement to assess impairment, especially in situations when a more common breath analysis isn’t effective. 

Typically, the state Crime Lab first tests the blood sample for alcohol, and then can look for the presence of other drugs, with THC a primary concern. Just like alcohol, there’s a level of THC that’s above the legal limit.

“The blood test is a good tool in the tool kit for our officers,” Lapotka says. 

Polson City Manager Ed Meece was on hand for the discussion, and said the Polson City Commission will consider an ordinance during its regular meeting Monday night that outlines zoning and licensing for pot shops within the city limits.

The ordinance reflects the efforts of a marijuana tax force, composed of law enforcement, school and healthcare representatives and a marijuana business owner, that’s met three times with city staff to articulate concerns and codify strategies.

Meece noted that the task force’s main concerns were limiting the access and usage of pot around minors and among non-using members of the public; the probable increase in crime and use of other drugs; and the potential impacts on property values, tourism and quality of life. They also worried about a saturation of marijuana-related businesses in commercial areas.

Under the proposed ordinance, marijuana vendors would need to purchase a business license, costing $1,500 annually, must operate between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., cannot offer a drive-up window or vending machine, and may not allow anyone under 21 on the premises. 

The proposed ordinance also stipulates that businesses manufacturing or selling marijuana products could not be located within 300 feet of property that’s zoned residential; within 500 feet of a place of worship, or any park or facility owned or operated by the city; within 500 feet of another marijuana business; or within 1,000 feet of a public or private school (excluding home schools). 

The law would also prohibit advertising for marijuana products and services and insist that products be transported in opaque, child-resistant containers. 

So far, Meece said he was not aware that any applications had been filed for recreational dispensaries within the Polson city limits. 

If approved, the ordinance would go into effect Jan. 1. 

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