After two years of legal cannabis sales, Washington State has collected $230,063,875 in marijuana excise taxes, according to 502data.com. This exceeds projections by quite a bit—nearly twice as much, or $34 million, in the first year of sales alone.
In Aurora, Colorado, officials decided to spend $1.5 million of their pot tax revenue on homelessness, which has gotten people here starting to wonder what we're doing with our millions. Recently, I was on Blabbermouth, The Stranger's weekly podcast, when a caller asked if Seattle could use its pot taxes to help the homeless.
The short answer is yes. All the pot tax revenue goes into the city's general fund, which the city can spend as it pleases. But the city hasn't received as much money as you might think. Additionally, much of this revenue is already earmarked for certain expenditures.
The current state budget includes $6 million per year for cities and counties to do "marijuana enforcement." That money is disbursed based on retail sales and the presence (or absence) of bans and moratoriums. In fiscal year 2016, Seattle received about $383,000.
There are no restrictions on how cities can spend this money, according to Brian Smith, director of communications for the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB). The only official guideline on how municipalities can spend the enforcement funds comes from the Association of Washington Cities, in a statement last year: "Initially there was confusion on how these funds could be spent. The Municipal Research and Data Center suggests that 'monies can be deposited into the general/current expense fund where public safety appropriations typically occur.'"
David Mendoza, senior policy adviser with the mayor's office, said that's exactly what happened; the money was put in the general fund and spent on city employees who focus on pot enforcement and policy. He said this amount equals about $500,000. The city estimates it will receive $700,000 in cannabis tax revenue this year, leaving only $200,000. "The idea that the city is netting a ton of revenue from marijuana is one that won't die," said Mendoza. "The state is the prime beneficiary, and if that legislature hadn't created a pool of... marijuana revenue for all municipalities and counties to share, we wouldn't even be getting the $700,000."
We'll likely see even more revenue in the future. HB 2136, a cannabis market reform bill passed alongside the 2015–2016 session's Cannabis Patient Protection Act (SB 5052), set up a system under which the state distributes money to cities and counties based on similar factors to those governing the enforcement money: $15 million per year in 2018 and 2019, and $20 million per year after that—30 percent of it distributed based on percentage of retail sales, 70 percent of it distributed based on population, and no money for areas with bans and moratoriums. And there are no restrictions on how those funds can be used. That, said Mendoza, is actually a good thing as far as homelessness funding goes.
"Our budget folks caution against any attempt to dedicate revenues because if [those] dedicated revenues were to fall, then we would have to cut homelessness services," he said. "By sending revenues through the general fund, we are able to prioritize during a time of recession, and typically then can better protect efforts such as homelessness services funding, as we were able to do during the last recession."
We'll receive our share of the funds mandated by HB 2136 once they've been appropriated by the legislature in the next budget cycle. While we're generating more and more tax money because potheads are doing a great job smoking pot, smoking more pot doesn't do much for us at a local level, as the state keeps the lion's share of the take. However, that's not to say the pot tax isn't doing anything for homelessness.
"Since the marijuana revenue goes to the general fund, it is entirely reasonable to say that indirectly it is supporting our homelessness efforts," said Mendoza. "In the 2016 budget, we increased the base budget to address homelessness by more than $2 million. This was in addition to the one-time $7.35 million that was added through the State of Emergency on Homelessness, collectively bringing the city's 2016 total to $50 million to address homelessness. Without a growth in revenues (from marijuana and elsewhere), the city would not be able to do more for homelessness without taking reductions from other city services."
There's also an illegal cannabis delivery service that actually donates pot to the homeless (and does LGBTQ activism, too!). If you're a strictly legal buyer, Stash in Ballard is also big on working with the homeless, and recently announced plans to do some outreach and volunteering with the city-sanctioned homeless encampments in their hood. But if you really want to fight homelessness with pot, the best way to do it might be at City Hall. First smoke some pot to prepare for the tedium, and then mosey on down to a city council meeting, sign up for public comment, and call for more funding.