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Pot is no longer about politics; it’s about cold, hard cash — make that, revenue

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While the annual “4/20” cannabis bacchanal gets underway this morning at Denver’s Civic Center Park — in search of some cause beyond satisfying the basic human need to party — a couple of observations from Colorado’s media gallery seem especially apt.

First, Denverite’s Adrian Garcia notes today how a fissure has opened up in the marijuana world — pitting, for the most part, the newly legit industry and its assorted purveyors against, for lack of a better word, the partiers. Garcia seems to capture the moment precisely:

Denver’s 4/20 rally used to have a political purpose. Out from the shadows for one day of the year, consumers lit up for the public to see, protesting state and federal rules banning marijuana use. Then in 2012, those rules changed. Voters passed Amendment 64 and turned marijuana policy from a mere movement to a full-fledged industry.

Legalization split the cannabis community’s perception of Denver’s big 4/20 event. Key people who in past years joined the rally in Civic Center Park are now involved in promoting the industry and have abandoned the annual event and even admonish its participants.

Why do they no longer wish simply to party on? Well, it’s probably because they now can do so legally in all kinds of places; no mass act of defiance is arguably needed or warranted.

Granted, some of those participating in today’s rally may have been living under a continuous cannabis cloud for the past four years and thus could be blissfully unaware of their new rights (a cheap shot, sure; someone had to take it), but there are many who know better.

Which is why the industry is moving on. Garcia explains:

That’s certainly the case for Jordan Person, who heads up the Denver chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Five years ago, it had a purpose,” Person said. “It was all about fighting, and now it’s all about civil disobedience. … It doesn’t look good on marijuana consumers.”

Person added:

“Yes, it’s a celebration. Yes, it’s a holiday for our culture. But what is it really about today?…We want it to be about progress, not about civil disobedience.”

Yes, as always, a celebration. This year, Rapper 2 Chainz will perform, Garcia notes. But the political momentum, and purpose, seem to be gone. Think, “A Taste of Colorado” — downtown Denver’s annual Labor Day weekend foodie fest — but with inferior food. And eventually, that will change, too.

So, what is pot if no longer exactly a political cause? Without referencing 4/20, longtime Capitol newsman Todd Engdahl makes the answer abundantly clear in a blog post this week for Colorado Capitol Watch. It’s about — of course — money. More precisely, revenue. Even the headline on Engdahl’s post gets right to the point: “Lawmakers get high on marijuana fund spending.”

It’s a subject that has gotten its share of attention in news coverage of the state budget debate just across the street from today’s 4/20 rally. As Engdahl recounts, a veritable feeding frenzy over pot-generated tax revenue has been ongoing and will continue. Were Willie Sutton alive today, he’d have to agree that’s where the money is. Or, to be precise, was. Engdahl writes:

Colorado legislators this session are close to overspending the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, the state account that holds the revenues from the various taxes on cannabis products.

State fiscal analysts estimate that fund will have a net $117.7 million available for spending in the 2017-18 budget year. But marijuana appropriations proposed in the main state budget plus spending proposed in other bills that haven’t yet passed totals $8.6 million more than will be available.

Close to overspending? On what?

As ColoradoPolitics.com and other media have reported, assorted members of the legislature have sought, with varying degrees of success, to spend the pot cash on everything from affordable housing to luring the film industry.

You ask, aren’t there legal limits on what marijuana sales tax revenue can be used for? Well, yes, but lawmakers do make the laws, and they can re-make them, too. Engdahl describes how it works:

The marijuana account is classified as a “cash fund,” meaning it isn’t subject to the same balancing requirements as general fund money…

Frustrated by their inability to tap the general fund for favorite projects, lawmakers often try to raid cash funds. That what’s happened with the marijuana fund this year, in a big way.

How do they get around the restrictions? Evidently, by squinting real hard when they read the fine print. Again, Engdahl explains:

A law passed after recreational marijuana was legalized limits tax revenue spending to programs “such as drug use prevention and treatment, protecting the state’s youth, and ensuring the public peace, health, and safety.” (That last item means marijuana regulation and law enforcement.)

Lawmakers have used that broad definition to fund a lot of programs, including the Department of Revenue, school health services, drug education, marijuana research and mental health and substance abuse programs of all kinds.

Which isn’t to say everyone in the legislature goes along with it.  Littleton Republican state Sen. Tim Neville, for example, scolded colleagues on the Senate floor last month before they ultimately agreed to nix the pot-fueled film subsidy. Reported The Colorado Statesman:

“Colleagues I want to be blunt: We’re talking about absconding with these funds, based upon the purposes that we’ve outlined, and using them for a totally different purpose that benefits only a few,” Neville said.

While that debate promises to continue, the political mojo at the 4/20 rally likely will keep fading. That’s not to say the event itself is doomed; not at all. Downtown Denver always can use another party. There’s just not much political significance to it anymore.

TV news teams still will turn out, as will the print media, because it’s great color. And because people say the darndest things when they’re stoned.

But the real news will be unfolding across the street, among marijuana’s new money changers in Colorado’s political temple.

 

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