Denver Initiated Ordinance 300: Should recreational marijuana taxes be raised to pay for pandemic research?

4 min. read
Will marijuana taxes be raised to pay for pandemic research? Voters will decide.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

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A Delaware-registered political-advocacy group Guarding Against Pandemics organized Denverites to put a measure on the ballot that, if passed, would hike recreational marijuana sales taxes to raise money for local pandemic research including technologies for pandemic protection, disinfection and sterilization and public policy and planning through the University of Colorado Denver CityCenter -- which was not involved in the measure and has no current plans to set up such a program.

Here's the language you'll see on the ballot:

Shall Denver retail marijuana sales tax be increased by $7 million annually, beginning January 1, 2022, and by whatever additional amounts are raised annually thereafter, from a one and one-half (1.5) percent retail marijuana sales tax to be used to fund:

  • Pandemic research for advanced technologies to protect the public from the spread of pandemic pathogens, including at schools, businesses, and hospitals;
  • Pandemic research for pandemic preparedness and recovery, including urban, economic, and school planning;

Provided that the funds will be dedicated entirely to the University of Colorado Denver CityCenter which will be required to equitably allocate the funds wherein seventy-five (75) percent of the funds are limited to the three research categories of: personal protective equipment; disinfection and sterilization technology; and design features of physical spaces, and that twenty-five (25) percent of the funds are limited to researching public policy and planning, that no more than eight (8) percent of the tax revenue in any year shall be spent on administrative expenses, that after twenty years the areas of technological research to reduce the spread of pandemic pathogens may be expanded, that oversight will require annual audit and reporting requirements, and requiring that revenues from these increased taxes shall be collected and spent without regard to any expenditure, revenue-raising, or other limitation contained within Article X, Section 20 of the Colorado Constitution or any other law?

Here's how it would work:

The measure would hike recreational marijuana sales taxes by 1.5 percent, or $7 million annually, starting January 1, 2022; medical cannabis sales would not be affected. The tax would be an additional 15 cents on the $10 purchase.

For the first twenty years, the revenue would be allocated as follows: 75 percent would fund local pandemic research including technologies for pandemic protection, disinfection and sterilization; 25 percent would fund public policy and planning through the University of Colorado Denver CityCenter, a division of the university that forms partnerships between faculty experts and business, government and community leaders to solve big problems in the city. No more of than 8 percent of the revenue could pay for administrative expenses. After 20 years, research could be expanded. The entire project will receive an annual audit and will disclose how it spends money.

Who's for it and who's against it?

The Delaware-based group Guarding Against Pandemics funded signature-collection efforts to get the measure on the ballot and has provided legal and consulting services. Registered as a social-welfare nonprofit, campaign-finance rules do not require the group to disclose donors; on its website, cryptocurrency billionaire and Democratic philanthropist Sam Bankman-Fried is the only named backer of the organization. The Denver Pandemic Fund, the political committee supporting the effort, has spent just over $200,000 on the campaign.

Proponents of the measure argue government at all levels was taken off-guard by COVID-19 and needs to invest in research so Denver -- and beyond -- is prepared for the next pandemic. By funding local research, the initiative would also bolster Denver's role as a leader in pandemic preparedness.

"The University of Colorado has not taken a position on Initiated Ordinance 300," CU Denver spokesperson Ryan Huff told Denverite. "CU Denver became aware of the proposed ballot initiative in the summer of 2020 when the campaign group first suggested the idea. We are not involved in the campaign. Since this is still before the voters, we have not made tangible plans on how to use the funds, if passed. However, as Denver's only public urban research university, we have award-winning faculty and an experienced research office that are ready and capable of administering new grants."

Anti-tax conservatives, including Joshua Sharf, former vice-chair of the Denver County Republican Party, have spoken out against the bill. Other opponents describe the measure as "a pointless tax grab," arguing recreational cannabis is the stylish new sin to tax. Higher taxes on cannabis, they argue, means more of the marijuana industry shifts back to the black market, strengthening criminal organizing and down the road justifying even more taxes to fight crime. The opponents also worry that CU Denver CityCenter had nothing to do with securing the funds, and as a result, the program's goals might never work and the money could be shifted to other unknown purposes.

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