In a surprise change of course, the Josephine County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday unanimously rejected seeking a tax on newly legalized marijuana.
“I’m stunned,” said Mark Seligman, an outspoken marijuana activist from Selma who was among dozens of people who packed the Anne Basker Auditorium in downtown Grants Pass.
At issue was a proposed resolution to allow voters in May to decide whether the county should “regulate and impose a 10 percent tax on the production, transportation and transfer of marijuana and marijuana products.”
Many in the audience expected commissioners to rubber-stamp the resolution and were clearly caught off guard by the decision.
The 3-0 vote was surprising because in October the board rushed to pass an ordinance allowing the county to tax marijuana, contingent on voter approval in May. In addition, the board placed an advisory question on the November ballot asking if the county should tax the drug, and voters overwhelmingly said yes, by a margin of 76 to 24 percent.
All the maneuvering was directly related to Measure 91, which voters approved in November and which legalized recreational marijuana in Oregon starting in July.
The measure prohibits cities and counties from taxing marijuana and places regulatory control under the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. The state is allowed to tax marijuana under the terms of Measure 91, and all revenue would flow into a special fund with a variety of designated uses. Ten percent of that fund is earmarked for law enforcement and would be distributed throughout the state based on population.
Prior to the vote, county Legal Counsel Wally Hicks told the board
he had concerns about various aspects of the proposed ordinance. He also wasn’t certain the county’s ordinance would stand up against a legal challenge considering the language of Measure 91.
Members of the audience had a multitude of reasons why there should not be a local tax on marijuana.
Their arguments ranged from personal to procedural. Some could barely contain their outrage. Others offered well-reasoned objections.
“It’s going to lose,” Peter Gendron of Sunny Valley said of the resolution. “If by some fluke it passes, you’re going to face legal challenges.”
John Sajo, of Riddle, who was an adviser on passing Measure 91, told the board that state revenue will be allocated based on the number of licenses issued and the proposed tax will deter people from getting permits.
“If this passes, you’ll have none of the revenue because people won’t get licenses,” he argued.
Mark Collier of Grants Pass agreed with Sajo’s points, adding, “It goes way beyond taxation. It’s over-regulation.”
County Assessor Connie Roach told the board she has read the proposed ordinance very carefully and she is concerned about the county’s ability to implement the proposed legislation.
“Let’s see what the Legislature does,” she advised.
The Oregon Legislature has formed a bipartisan committee that includes Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, to determine how to implement Measure 91. Counties and cities are expected to lobby state lawmakers to provide more local revenue from what Salem collects.
County Commissioner Simon Hare told the audience he intends to make his presence known in Salem to make sure lawmakers are aware of Josephine County’s perspective.
Commissioner Cherryl Walker, in response to complaints that the board was trying to sneak something past the public, pointed out that there were two public hearings about the ordinance in October as well as the advisory question that voters overwhelmingly supported.
She also noted that prior to the November election, Hare hosted a forum on the impact of legalizing marijuana and the board hosted several town halls on the subject at various locations around the county.