Opinion: Time to lift the ban on retail marijuana sales

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Neil Rappaport

Colorado Springs faces an unprecedented budget crisis in the wake of the pandemic. In the coming weeks, our City Council and Mayor must cut at least $20 million from our current budget, with likely more reductions anticipated in the near future.

When a majority of Colorado citizens, including a majority of Colorado Springs voters, supported allowing retail marijuana statewide in 2012, the ballot measure explicitly enabled municipalities to opt out of selling retail marijuana.

In 2014 Colorado Springs City Council instituted a “temporary” ban on allowing retail marijuana sales within city limits. 

It is time to allow the voice of the citizens of the city to be heard on the sale of RMJ. Give the voters a choice to approve or disapprove the sale of retail marijuana now that we have six years of legal use of retail marijuana. 

About 16 percent of Colorado adults purchase legal marijuana on a regular or occasional basis, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. But Colorado Springs citizens must make their perfectly legal retail marijuana purchases in Aurora, Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins, Manitou Springs and 40 other Colorado cities that regulate and collect taxes on more than $300 million in additional tax revenue during 2019 alone.

At the request of the local civic nonprofit Together for Colorado Springs, I analyzed publicly available data to forecast how much tax revenue our city would gain if we allowed local adults and tourists to buy their retail marijuana within city limits. If Colorado Springs places a 12 percent local tax on retail marijuana, as T4CS advocates, our city would collect $17.7 million in additional tax revenue in the first full year of retail marijuana sales.

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So, what are the arguments against seizing this fiscal opportunity?

Mayor John Suthers argues that lifting the ban will bring in “just $7 million” a year in additional revenue. Is that a reasonable estimate? It is likely a bit low, but “just $7 million” would help maintain our police and fire departments, keep our parks and trees watered, and our senior and community centers open.

A tax on retail marijuana is a voluntary tax only paid by those who choose to buy the product. If you are like me, and do not use marijuana, you will not pay the tax.

Mayor Suthers also continually repeats the tired canard that allowing retail marijuana sales will harm our ability to maintain or enhance our military bases. Since retail marijuana use has been legal statewide, Colorado has not lost one military installation. Look no further than Buckley Air Force Base in the Denver area — sitting right next to communities which allow retail marijuana sales. This argument is empty rhetoric.

Colorado Springs was selected to serve as the headquarters for the U.S. Space Command for at least the next 6 years. We were chosen, even though retail marijuana is widely available throughout the state, including in neighboring Manitou Springs. There is no quarantine nor border controls preventing people from crossing city lines to buy marijuana.

More importantly, Mayor Suthers’ argument belittles our military. I am a retired Air Force Colonel who knows, like all those still in uniform, that the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes any use of marijuana illegal for military members.

What those arguing against permitting retail marijuana sales imply is that military members are too undisciplined to avoid temptation if they drive past a retail marijuana store. And implicit in their argument is that our military commanders are incapable of enforcing the UCMJ. A similar lack of respect arises from the claim that we need to protect the drug-free workplace required for our defense contractors and their patriotic employees.

Finally, this argument insults the Department of the Air Force, the source-selection authority for the U.S. Space Force HQ. In May 2020, the criteria for choosing the permanent HQ was published, and nowhere in these items was any mention made of marijuana.

Lifting the ban on retail marijuana sales is by no means a panacea to the pandemic’s toll on our city’s budget, but the additional tax revenue will mitigate more than 80 percent of the Mayor’s projected budget cuts.

The choice is clear. Colorado Springs can offset some cuts to core city services by reaping tax revenue from retail marijuana sales or stand by and watch as other municipalities benefit from the money and jobs these legal businesses create.   

Dr. Neal Rappaport, a retired USAF Colonel, earned his Ph.D. in economics from MIT and an MBA from the University of Chicago. Rappaport is the former department head at the United States Air Force Academy, and has also taught at Colorado College ad UCCS. He served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.

Disclosure: John Weiss, founder and owner of the Colorado Springs Business Journal, is a member of the working group seeking to legalize recreational marijuana in Colorado Springs.

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