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Politics

Will Marijuana Taxes Go To Health Care?

Gene Johnson, Associated Press
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File photo of marijuana. (Photo by RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/GettyImages)

File photo of marijuana. (Photo by RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/GettyImages)

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SEATTLE (AP) — One selling point of Washington’s new legal marijuana law was that a huge chunk of pot-related tax revenue would be devoted to health coverage for low-income residents.

But it’s not clear the money will go to health care after all.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” the intended recipient of the pot taxes — Washington’s Basic Health Plan — is being eliminated. The plan, which provided low-cost health insurance to the working poor, is being absorbed by Medicaid and will end Dec. 31, according the state Health Care Authority.

As a result, lawmakers may need to take action if they want to rededicate the money that Initiative 502, the legal pot law passed by voters last year, intended for the Basic Health Plan, which could amount to tens of millions of dollars a year.

“It would be my hope that in the spirit of the initiative the Legislature would dedicate that money into health care,” said retired state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, a sponsor of I-502. “In particular, mental health is a huge issue and hasn’t been properly funded.”

The state has yet to see any tax revenue from the sale of legal pot to adults over 21. The Liquor Control Board is due to begin accepting applications Nov. 18 from people seeking licenses to grow, process and sell pot for recreational reasons, with pot stores expected to open around the middle of next year.

I-502 taxes pot highly — 25 percent at least two stages and up to three, plus sales taxes. It specifies that once the money starts rolling in, every three months the state will pay $175,000 to the Department of Social and Health Services to support Washington’s “healthy youth” survey and a cost-benefit analysis of the legal-marijuana law. Some $5,000 goes to the University of Washington to publish only information about marijuana, and up to $1.25 million goes to the Liquor Control Board for the costs of administering I-502.

Of the money that’s left, half was dedicated to the Basic Health Plan. That could be a lot, based on projections that legal marijuana could bring in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

It requires a two-thirds vote for lawmakers to amend an initiative in the first two years after passage.

The legal marijuana law did not carve out a share of tax revenue for cities and counties, which are facing some of the costs of its implementation, and some would like to see the Legislature remedy that next session. Candice Bock, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities, said that for the legal marijuana law to work, the state is going to need to crack down on the black market, and that increases police costs.

“There is a real need to address those local impacts,” Bock said.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, another sponsor of I-502, said he’s been in contact with the state Attorney General’s Office to research what happens to the money now that the Basic Health Plan is being eliminated, and he too would like to see the money go toward health care as voters intended.

“We don’t have any revenue yet, but it’s a good problem to have,” Holmes said.

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Follow Johnson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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