Not too long ago, few Clark County residents would have envisioned a Republican state senator introducing a bill that even mentioned the word "marijuana" or dared to advocate a tax increase.
Then again, not too long ago, Ann Rivers wasn't a legislator. She was elected in 2010 to the state House, then last year to the state Senate. And now the La Center Republican is unabashedly asking her colleagues to impose a new tax on medical marijuana. Her bill is a good one, and it further illustrates that Rivers is willing to venture beyond traditional GOP doctrine and advance good ideas.
Rivers' Senate Bill 5887 would resolve a serious difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. The former was legalized by voters in 1998, the latter last year with passage of Initiative 502. But recreational marijuana will be heavily taxed, whereas medical marijuana is not. Rivers explained the looming problem in a Tuesday Columbian story as she described the hypothetical recreational marijuana user: "Your choice is to buy marijuana that's being taxed at 25 percent or obtain a phony authorization and use it to obtain medical cannabis that carries no tax," she said. And as The Seattle Times pointed out: "If nothing is done, the existing market will undermine the new one."
Another valid point was made last month by Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor who has been hired by Washington to help implement the new system authorized by I-502: "It's entirely possible that, by the time we finish regulating and taxing (recreational marijuana), it's going to be uncompetitive with what you can get at the (medical marijuana) collective gardens," Kleiman said.
Rivers' solution — creating a tax to balance the two pot markets — makes so much sense, we wonder if even Grover Norquist might like it.
As a consolation to medical marijuana users, Rivers' bill would create a slightly lower tax for medical marijuana (10 percent to 20 percent as opposed to about 25 percent for recreational marijuana), although not enough of a difference to make recreational users go to the trouble of trying to game the system and buy medicinal pot.
Unfortunately, Rivers' bill was introduced relatively late in the 2013 legislative session. It might not advance this year to a public hearing or a floor vote. But she already has accomplished two tasks: spreading the word about the tax discrepancy that could erode the success of Initiative 502, and launching a serious discussion among legislators about solving the problem.
In Colorado, where pot also was legalized last year, lawmakers are discussing a tax of up to 40 percent on medical marijuana. Rivers' plan includes a much lower tax. One other advantage is that the tax Rivers proposes could ultimately make a dent in the budget shortfalls that she and her colleagues continually face.
Washington is still many months away from instituting a program of legalized recreational marijuana. Many adjustments will be needed along the way. Reconciling the tax differences is one of those challenges, and Rivers' bill offers a reasonable solution.