When legalized cannabis passed in Colorado several years ago, it did so for a few reasons. Some people wanted access to pot, some people believed in small government and didn’t want the authorities deciding who could and could not smoke a joint, and some people were enticed by the tax revenue. With a good chunk going to state school districts, it was easy to look at any naysayers and ask, “Why? Why do you hate children?” The tax revenue headed towards education was a major angle in the passage of legalization. Because it was so heavily marketed that cannabis money would be spent in this manner, there’s been a fair amount of scrutiny surrounding where the revenue has really gone. This speculation was buoyed in an often-quoted public letter by Harry Bull, the superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District, where he wrote,
“People keep asking me, ‘Where’s the pot money?’ The short answer is that Cherry Creek School District hasn’t received any. So far, the only thing that legalization of marijuana has brought to our schools has been marijuana.”
Calling Bull on Bull
I actually knew Mr. Bull once upon a time – he was the dean when I was in high school back in a year that’s none of your damn business. And he is a cool guy, but he’s also one who appears to be wrong. According to Westword, the Colorado Department of Education says that the Cherry Creek School District has indeed seen the money. For the 2014-2015 and 2016-2017 years, it received 125,000 dollars.
When this discrepancy was pointed out, Abbe Smith, Cherry Creek Schools Director of Communications, released a statement saying, “The superintendent’s letter to the community regarding school funding shortages and the marijuana tax was published in August 2016. At the time, the district had not received any funding from the marijuana tax.” But, again, this is incorrect. The district received just over 8,000 in 2015 and just over 28,000 the following year. By the end of the 2016 fiscal year, the district was slotted to receive another 38,000 for its Charter School Capital Construction Fund (as well as another 38,000 this year). While it may seem like small potatoes, there are a lot of schools in Colorado and the money must be spread around – as of 2016, over $117 million in tax money had already been used to fund school construction projects. In fact, per 9 News, the wholesale tax on pot is dedicated purely to the school districts. The first 40 million goes to BEST, a state program that uses grants to add onto and improve school facilities. This program is focused mainly on rural areas, which can explain, in part, why the Cherry Creek School District isn’t being handed a heavier check. I grew up in that district and, though it’s been “one or two” years since I graduated high school, I can’t recall a single school in the district that is located in a rural area. The district is also one of the more affluent, meaning it doesn’t need as much help as others.
Other School Districts in Colorado
While the Cherry Creek School District has only received what amounts to a drop in the bucket, other districts have received larger shares. The reason for this may vary – perhaps other districts apply for more grants or maybe they’re in greater need of assistance. The Coloradoan reports that the Poudre School District in Fort Collins has received nearly 1 million dollars over the past three years. They’ve received 179,000 for substance abuse prevention programs, 300,000 for dropout prevention, and over 400,000 for part-time counselors focused on preventing bullying. But, again, the main focus on spending lies in rural areas.
According to the Denver Post, the 300 million dollars that were part of the BEST program almost all went to rural areas. One of these areas is the Brush School District located in eastern Colorado near the Nebraska border. It received over 60 million for a new middle school and renovation of its high school. Rural towns aren’t known for their support of cannabis. Within the city limits of many of these towns, there are no dispensaries. But they need money for their schools and pot gives them that. So far, it doesn’t appear anyone has turned this money down.
Breaking Down the Tax Revenue
Of course, non-education is privy to pot revenue too (after the initial revenue goes to education). Local governments and the state legislature also have their hands in the cookie jar. They use a large percentage of this to double down on marijuana laws, treatment programs, and education programs surrounding drug abuse. According to CBS News, some of the other places this money is funneled into include behavioral health needs, programs designed to help the homeless, and programs geared towards ending the opioid epidemic. But, while much ado is made about pot revenue, it’s far from the only “sin tax” that brings in the dough.
It is the newest, however, and that makes it the most controversial (plus, it’s weed, so some people see controversy no matter what). Sin taxes vary by state, but here, Colorado has a sin tax on cigarettes and tobacco, liquor, and gambling. Gambling has routinely brought in the highest amount of money….and then Mary Jane came along.