Aspen leaders ponder what to do with pot of money

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Tawnya Parker weighs out and packages eighths at Roots RX Thursday.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Aspen’s municipal government reaped $200,341 in sales tax collections from marijuana sales in 2015, which has prompted a discussion about future use of those funds.

The money currently sits in the city’s general fund, but at a City Council work session Tuesday, officials pondered earmarking those dollars for educational and community-outreach efforts regarding cannabis.

Police Chief Richard Pryor and Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, both of whom are members of the Valley Marijuana Council, suggested that the city consider reinvesting the tax proceeds similarly to what the state does.

Colorado’s Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, stipulates that the first $40 million drawn from its excise tax goes toward public school construction.

“I’m not suggesting the whole $200,000 — that is a whole lot of money,” DiSalvo said, noting that a portion could be used toward not only informing youth about the downside of marijuana use but also communicating with parents.

He added, “We’re so focused on kids, I don’t think we remember that the parents have a huge role in this.”

Taxes collected from cannabis sales also could help aid mental-health and detox services, Pryor suggested.

The four council members at the work session — Ann Mullins was absent — were receptive to the idea.

“I’m a parent, and I could use the education just like the next guy I know,” Councilman Art Daily said. “I know very little about the effects of marijuana on the teenage brain.”

Councilman Adam Frisch took it a step further, arguing that all tax proceeds be used for outreach efforts.

“I guess I need a case why 100 percent of the money that’s generated from the marijuana in town shouldn’t be reinvested back into awareness, education, prevention, whatever the treatment, whatever the cause and effect,” he said.

Aspen resident Lexie Potamkin, a mother of three, said her research has shown THC to have a negative effect — be it memory loss, lack of motivation, decreased enjoyment and increased anxiety, among other detriments — on teenagers. But a majority of teens aren’t aware of that, she said.

“Anything you can do to reach our teens and educate them would be very appreciated,” she said.

Others in the audience, however, cautioned against turning education and outreach programs into propaganda or misinformation about the drug. Snowmass Village resident Leslie Desmond also argued that not all research into pot’s effects is conclusive.

“We need to be careful with the education so we’re educating kids and parents as correctly as we can,” she said.

DiSalvo and Brad Stevenson, also a member of the Valley Marijuana Council, said it’s critical the outreach and education also be done at the “point of sale.” In other words, marijuana dispensaries need to be involved, they said.

“The education part is really critical, and we need to find increasing ways to get to the right audience,” Stevenson said.

Last year, Aspen’s seven pot shops generated $8.3 million in sales between medical and recreational marijuana, according to the city’s Finance Department.

Some Colorado municipalities have employed an additional 5 percent tax on marijuana sales, adding to the 25 percent in state taxes already levied on recreational pot, noted Debbie Quinn, the city’s assistant attorney.

If the city had a 5 percent tax on recreational sales last year, that would have generated an additional $315,000 in taxes, “so that’s something to think about,” Quinn said.

It also would require a public vote, she said, noting the extra money could be used for “everything from road improvements to health and mental wellness.”

Frisch cautioned that higher taxes on recreational marijuana could steer consumers to the black market.