marijuana

Arizonans have decided they want to be able to smoke marijuana and apparently are just fine with taxing the richest state residents to help add funds for K-12 education.

They’ll be able to do the first by the end of the month.

But it could take more than a year for new revenues from the income tax surcharge to reach the classroom.

With the marijuana measure being approved by 60% of voters, the law takes effect Nov. 30. All adults will be able to possess up to an ounce of the drug without facing criminal charges. Ditto being able to grow up to six plants—double that for households with more than one adult.

Getting it legally, however, is a different question.

The initiative requires the Department of Health Services to come up with the rules for the new recreational marijuana outlets. 

And that is unlikely to happen before March, leaving no legal place for those without a medical marijuana card to purchase weed.

It may actually be later.

Sam Richards of the Arizona Dispensaries Association suggested that the operators of the planned recreational outlets are aiming for an April 20 ceremonial startup date, playing off the fact that 4/20 is considered an unofficial “marijuana day.”

The Nov. 3 voter approval drew a stinging rebuke by Lisa James, spokeswoman for the anti-207 campaign, saying the ballot measure was marked by “deceit and self-interest.”

The measure includes a 16% tax—similar to what is assessed on alcohol—that proponents say will generate $300 million a year in new revenues to fund community colleges, public safety, health programs and for the construction and repair of roads.

James countered that the experience in Colorado shows there is far more being spent on marijuana-related expenses than what the tax there brings in.

 She also said the measure has other shortcomings, including the lack of a specific standard to determine exactly what concentration of marijuana’s psychoactive chemical is proof that someone is driving while impaired.

Approval also is good news for some who have previously been convicted of illegal possession of up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana, allowing them to petition to have their convictions erased.

While James has conceded defeat, not so for Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which was behind the effort to kill Proposition 208. 

Although the Associated Press on Nov. 3 declared Prop 208 had passed, he said the following day the 5-point edge the initiative had is not yet enough to convince him that voters actually want to raise taxes on the rich.

The latest figures from the secretary of state showed Prop 208 passing with a 52% approval and a margin of about 113,000 votes—a margin that experts doubted could be overcome when remaining ballots are counted.

Right now individuals earning at least $250,000 pay state income taxes 4.5% for any earnings above that figure. The same cutoff exists for couples making more than $500,000 a year.

The initiative includes a 3.5% surcharge on top of that, bringing the effective tax rate on those top earnings to 8%.

Supporters, however, point out that the levy affects only those earnings above the threshold. So a couple with taxable income of $550,000 a year would pay that extra 3.5% only on $50,000, or an additional $1,750 a year. And anyone earning less will see no change in tax liability.

Taylor, undeterred, said it still would create one of the highest marginal tax rates in the nation. And just that fact, he said, will become a barrier to businesses locating here and chill what has generally been a healthy economy.

But Taylor was less interested in other state-to-state comparisons, including that the average class size in Arizona is higher than the national average and that teacher pay here, even after the 20% average increases of the past four years, still ranks near the bottom among all states.

And if nothing else, Taylor questioned how much of the $940 million the levy will raise actually will end up in teachers’ paychecks.

 He pointed out the 50% earmarked for salaries covers not just teachers but also classroom support personnel like nurses and counselors.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, acknowledged that school districts, who will get a share of the cash based on a weighted per-pupil formula, may decide to hire more teachers to reduce class size rather than providing raises.

It will, however, take some time for the dollars to start flowing.

The higher tax rates are effective with income earned in 2021.

And even with some high-wage earners making estimated payments to the state during the year, the big infusion won’t come until the spring of 2022.

According to the most recent financial disclosure reports, proponents and opponents spent a combined $30 million as of two weeks before the election. The pro-208 side had spent about $3 million more than foes. But those numbers also include the cost of getting the measure on the ballot in the first place.

It almost didn’t get there.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Chris Coury, ruling in a lawsuit financed by the state Chamber, concluded the measure could not go to voters because the legally required 100-word description was misleading and failed to describe all the key provisions.

 But that decision was overturned by a unanimous ruling of the Arizona Supreme Court.