Why cant Washington pay for its school problems with its magical new stoner-tax money?
Why can't Washington pay for its school problems with its magical new stoner-tax money? Kelly O

This afternoon, a Slog reader named Anna wrote in to ask why our state marijuana taxes—which were sold as a critical component of I-502, the initiative that legalized recreational cannabis—couldn't be used to pay for some of the budgetary problems at the heart of the teachers' strike.

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Her letter:

I'm a parent of a first grader at Orca K-8 and our family supports the strike 100%. I've enjoyed reading your coverage of the strike and the way you guys are so great at whittling down this immense issue, a crisis we are facing not just as one school district, but as a state.

My question is this: where is all the marijuana revenue going? Surely it can make up some of the gaps in the regressive tax system?

Once again thank you for your coverage of the strike. I have found it very informative.

—Anna

Good question, Anna.

The short answer: Washington's pot revenue is not nearly lucrative enough to make much of a difference.

The state is looking at roughly $280 million in marijuana-tax revenue for this year’s budget. The education budget is in the billions. So pot taxes aren’t actually that significant in the greater scheme of things.

Some say those pot-revenue forecasts are way too optimistic. According to the latest reports, the state Liquor and Cannabis Board has collected roughly $95.7 million in pot taxes since July 2014 while the state Department of Revenue has only collected $25.3 million.

The way pot taxes would be spent was written into the I-502 law: some for PSA prevention campaigns, some for drug treatment, some for drug research, some for the state general fund, a big chunk for low-income healthcare and community clinics, etc.

That was to make the pot law look more palatable to voters—and to make the feds think twice before barging in, cracking down, and putting themselves in the position of saying they hate pot so much, they’re going to take away our new source of funding for low-income healthcare. (That was a canny move on the part of ACLU attorney Alison Holcomb and the other folks who drafted the law.)

It got interesting during this budgetary session in Olympia, because the Democrat-controlled House wanted to allocate the money as I-502 legally mandated.

But the Republican-controlled Senate said, in effect: We have an education fiscal crisis, so let’s take all the pot money and put it towards the public-school system. The Democrats counterattacked, arguing that the $296 million in pot cash (or $25 million, depending on who's talking) would be a tiny Band-Aid on what is a gushing financial wound and the Republicans have a legal mandate (re: McCleary) to find a better, more sustainable solution.

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The Senate and the House wound up compromising on many aspects of the budget—and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles would like us to remember that most Senate Democrats weren't in favor of the Republican plan to spend pot money on schools. Either way, the funding-education-with-pot issue wound up being a relatively minor part of a very complicated negotiation that sent Olympia deep into legislative overtime.

So: Democrats made sure pot money was spent the way it was intended to (more or less), Republicans got to point at Democrats and accuse them of preventing the school system from getting pot tax money, and none of it really matters because the amount of money we’re talking about is relatively small given the size of the problem.

This post has been updated.