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Oct. 23, 2020

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Clark County Sheriff’s Office says no to cannabis revenue

Undersheriff tells council chair he doesn’t want deputy salaries tied to ‘drug money’

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:
2 Photos
Marijuana plants.
Marijuana plants. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File) Photo Gallery

If the Clark County Council moves forward and lifts its ban on recreational cannabis businesses in unincorporated areas, it’s expected to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue from taxes on the drug.

But the Clark County Sheriff’s Office wants none of it.

Clark County Undersheriff Mike Cooke made the statement in a March 27 email exchange with Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring. The email was released by the county under the state’s public disclosure law.

“Drugs have been destroying families for generations and will continue to do so,” Cooke wrote. “Unfortunately, now our local governments want to increase revenue on the backs of these poor families.”

Cooke wrote that legalizing cannabis “was simply exchanging an illegal drug cartel for a drug cartel controlled by the government. The government cartel now acts just like the illegal cartels.

“This is why the sheriff’s office has made it clear we want absolutely nothing to do with any revenue generated by marijuana sales,” he continued.

Financial concerns

Cooke’s remarks come as County Manager Shawn Henessee is in the process of scrutinizing county departments for efficiencies and savings in advance of the upcoming budget cycle. County officials, including Henessee, say they face a structural deficit where costs, particularly involving employees, are rising faster than revenues.

Previously, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins complained that his office was inadequately funded after years of lean budgets following the recession. But in a follow-up interview, Cooke said that despite the potential for more money, it was “distasteful” to have funding for law enforcement tied to sales of a drug linked to addiction, property crime and harmful effects on kids. Instead, he said, the money should be directed toward addiction and recovery services.

Jim Mullen, co-owner of Vancouver-based The Herbery and president of the Washington Cannabusiness Association, said in an email that while a decades-old stigma still surrounds cannabis, its benefits are becoming increasingly evident for adults, leaving behind “the antiquated idea of ‘reefer madness.’ ”

“For regulated businesses, everything is at stake when it comes to following the law, and we are dedicated to distinguishing ourselves from the illicit, unregulated, untaxed and illegal cannabis market,” he wrote.

But if the county does lift the ban on recreational cannabis businesses, the sheriff’s office will have limited say in how the revenue is spent. Cooke acknowledged that the sheriff can’t simply reject the money, since the county council controls its budget. But, he added, “the sheriff can very strongly say that we don’t want the salaries of our employees dependent on drug money.”

Update on the process

Since earlier this year, the county has been considering lifting a ban on recreational marijuana businesses that was imposed in 2014 by the then-county commission two years after state voters passed an initiative legalizing the recreational use of cannabis.

Previously, a majority of the council opposed lifting the ban. That changed after Democrat Temple Lentz defeated Republican Councilor Jeanne Stewart in the November 2018 election. With Lentz’s election, a majority of the council, including Republican Councilors John Blom and Julie Olson, have supported revisiting the ban.

Cooke’s exchange with Quiring, an ardent opponent of lifting the ban, came as the council was preparing for an April 3 work session to hear perspectives from public health and law enforcement on the effects of legal cannabis. During the work session, representatives from law enforcement linked the drug to violent crime and increased calls for police service.

Since then, the county council held a second work session looking at the land-use and code implications of lifting the ban. The Clark County Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a hearing on lifting the ban on June 6. During a council meeting on Wednesday, Quiring called for another work session to be held on lifting the ban before it goes to the council for a final vote, which could happen on July 2.

Budget

Retail cannabis sales in the state have a 37 percent excise tax at the time of sale. According to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board’s 2018 fiscal report, $367.4 million in taxes and fees were collected from cannabis businesses for fiscal year 2018, up from the $319.1 million collected the previous year. The report states that $15 million was directed to cities and counties.

However, Clark County receives none of this money because of its ban.

Records released by the county include an email from Clark County Finance Director Mark Gassaway stating that the tax distribution will increase to $20 million in 2020. In the email, Gassaway estimated that if Clark County lifted its ban, it would receive between $650,000 to $730,000 in additional revenue.

Henessee, the county manager, said the money would be directed toward the county’s general fund, the largest pot of money in the county’s $518 million budget for 2019. The county’s budget office didn’t have a total of how much of the general fund goes to the sheriff’s office by press time, but Henessee previously said about 80 percent of the general fund goes to law and justice functions, including the sheriff’s office.

Henessee said there are no rules for how the county spends cannabis tax revenue. He said the state gives each county flexibility in using the money to address its unique problems, such as opioid addiction or law enforcement needs.

Lindsey Shafar, the county’s senior legislative assistant, said there are three businesses that hold retail licenses in unincorporated Clark County that could begin operating if the ban is lifted. She said there are more than a dozen businesses in unincorporated Clark County that hold licenses for producing and processing. She said the Liquor and Cannabis Board is not currently issuing more licenses.

It’s difficult to project exactly how much revenue Clark County would receive, she said, because revenue is distributed based on population and sales.

While lifting the ban would generate more revenue for the county, Henessee said, it would take businesses some time to get up and running. He said he doesn’t expect the county to suddenly have an additional three-quarters of a million dollars by the next year.

“So I would urge caution on that,” he said.

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