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Stanislaus County, cities put marijuana tax on back burner

Top county and city officials briefly considered the idea this month of putting a countywide marijuana tax on the November ballot.

The proposal surfaced on a number of city council agendas this week before Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa and Chief Executive Officer Stan Risen told the cities “never mind” for now.

The Modesto council skipped over the item at its meeting Tuesday, and let’s be clear, it won’t be on the ballot this fall.

Chiesa said he broached the idea to cities because the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, to legalize recreational use in California, is expected on the statewide ballot in November. Passage of that initiative would decriminalize pot and, among other things, allow the county to impose a 10 to 15 percent tax on commercial marijuana businesses.

Apparently, a general tax on marijuana would require a local ballot measure.

Under the sketchy proposal that surfaced this week, the county would have taken 10 percent of the tax collections for administration; the other 90 percent would have been distributed to cities and the county based on population.

When Chiesa talked things over with the mayors, there was concern about putting two local taxes on the November ballot – a countywide transportation tax and a cannabis levy. Even though a marijuana tax would come out of the pockets of users, city leaders didn’t want to give people any reason to oppose the half-cent transportation tax, which has failed twice before to get two-thirds approval in Stanislaus County.

If the marijuana initiative is approved statewide in November, the county and cities will have until 2018 to establish local policies. So a local marijuana tax could come back for consideration.

Chiesa said he will vote against the statewide marijuana initiative but felt the county should prepare for its enforcement and regulatory responsibilities. The 62-page initiative is filled with regulations concerning the production and sale of marijuana, licensing, consumption and local controls.

Most likely, the ballot issue will be decided by left-leaning voters in Bay Area and Southern California counties, where 65 to 80 percent of voters in 2014 favored Proposition 47 and its permissive attitude toward drug violations, shoplifting, car theft and other nonviolent crimes.

Stanislaus County and its cities could continue with policies of prohibiting licensed marijuana businesses, as is currently done with medical pot dispensaries.

That would be an option for a county that is trying to break cycles of addiction, crime and mental illness, unemployment, homelessness and poor literacy rates, and where some leaders see marijuana as a staple of the drug culture.

“(Marijuana legalization) will not make things better,” Supervisor Terry Withrow said. “We sure don’t want to see areas turn into pockets where people go for marijuana.”

Withrow said a local tax on marijuana sales won’t nearly cover the costs of public safety, addiction programs and public health services. A University of California, San Francisco, study warned in February the state was ignoring the costs of creating a new business in California akin to the tobacco industry.

Marijuana smoke creates some of the same breathing problems as tobacco and is believed to affect brain development in teenagers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Many state officials so far seem to be more focused on working alongside the marijuana industry to develop a robust marijuana business rather than on public health concerns,” said Rachel Barry, a researcher with the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

In a report for the Modesto City Council, staff members roughly estimated that a county tax on marijuana would give the city about $360,000 a year, enough to hire three police officers.

The AUMA initiative would permit adults 21 and older to have six plants at home and possess an ounce of marijuana. Local jurisdictions could prohibit outdoor cultivation, and smoking in public would not be permitted.

Some cities, such as Stockton and Sacramento, collect taxes on medicinal marijuana and use the funds to pay for police, fire service and code enforcement. Stockton’s tax is $25 for every $1,000 of gross sales.

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