Oregon’s cities are asking state legislators for big changes in the marijuana legalization law approved by voters in November.
A new bill introduced at the request of the League of Oregon Cities would allow cities and counties to levy their own taxes on retail marijuana sales, something now prohibited under Measure 91.
The measure, Senate Bill 542, would also allow city and county governing bodies to ban retail sales within their borders altogether. In contrast, Measure 91 allows a ban on sales only if citizens place a measure on the ballot and win over a majority of the voters.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, is one of the most sweeping changes to Measure 91 proposed so far and it comes with the strong backing of at least 70 cities that have passed ordinances seeking local taxes on recreational marijuana sales.
Measure 91, which levies a $ 35-an-ounce state tax on the potent parts of a marijuana plant, banned local taxes because sponsors said they wanted to ensure that taxes wouldn’t be so high that consumers would continue to go to the black market.
Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, argued that for the most part, cities are proposing relatively modest taxes — of 10 to 15 percent on the retail price of the drug — to help recoup their local costs of enforcement.
Anthony Johnson, Measure 91’s chief sponsor, countered that local governments already get a share of state taxes and that it’s too soon to start rewriting the measure.
“Until we let the implementation of Measure 91 play out, major changes are really premature,” said Johnson, noting that retail sales probably won’t start until the latter half of 2016.
Cities are also pushing hard for changes to the opt-out procedures in Measure 91. In essence, they want to go from requiring a majority of voters to allowing a majority of a city council or county commission to ban pot sales.
Winkels, noting that Measure 91 “didn’t pass everywhere” in Oregon, said many local communities simply don’t want to retail marijuana shops. “These communities need to have some say in what is appropriate for them,” he said, arguing that the elected officials should be able to act on the matter.
Johnson said he and the other authors of Measure 91 modeled the opt-out provisions on the statutes dealing with alcohol sales, which give voters the say over whether to have a dry city or county.
The League of Cities bill is likely to represent an opening bid in legislative deliberations over the issues of local taxes and local opt-outs.
For example, Winkels said at a minimum, cities would like to have some way to prohibit sales before the states start issuing licenses. Under Measure 91, the earliest that a locality could opt out of marijuana sales is at the November, 2016 election. Meanwhile, Measure 91 allows the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to start accepting license applications by retailers in January of that year, although it could take several months before the OLCC allows pot sales to actually begin.
There are also several more limited changes to the tax provisions that could take place. Rob Bovett, legal counsel for the Association of Oregon Counties, suggested in a memo that local taxes only be allowed at a level that would keep retail prices “at or below the legalized black market.”
Another alternative, he said, would be to give localities a bigger share of the cut of state tax proceeds. Measure 91 calls for 10 percent to go to cities and 10 percent to counties.
Bovett supported allowing local government leaders to ban marijuana sales. But he said a potential alternative would be to allow city and county leaders to refer a measure to the ballot asking voters if they wanted to ban local sales.
Johnson said legislators should be deferential to the 56 percent of voters who passed Measure 91 and at least at the start should stick with the same opt-out and tax provisions used in alcohol sales.
“Voters have really spoken that they want to see marijuana treated similarly to alcohol,” he said.