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County explores marijuana sales tax measure

Tax would generate up to 3 percent local tax on retail sales of pot outside cities

Columbia County commissioners are likely to ask voters in unincorporated areas to approve a marijuana tax measure in November.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE FLOWERSHOP - Michael Brown, an employee at The Flowershop in Warren, assists a customer. The Flowershop is the only marijuana dispensary in the unincorporated area of the county.The Columbia County Board of Commissioners is expected to vote at an upcoming meeting on an ordinance that, if approved by voters, would tack on a tax of up to 3 percent on top of the state’s 17 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.

Columbia County approved rules and regulations for marijuana growers, processors and retail sites in November, after previously instating moratoriums on marijuana dispensaries.

Commissioners signaled their initial approval of the idea Wednesday, June 8, during a regular meeting.

The county currently has five dispensaries, one of which is in Warren under county jurisdiction.

So far, the state has received 12 applications for recreational marijuana growers in Columbia County, two retailers and one wholesaler.

That includes all cities and unincorporated land within the county.

Jennifer Cuellar, the county’s treasurer, and Robin McIntyre, a land use attorney for the county, briefed commissioners Wednesday, noting the state’s sales tax revenue on marijuana since its legalization for recreational use has exceeded initial projections.

“It’s gone beyond their wildest expectations in terms of the tax,” Cuellar said.

Last month, the Oregon Department of Revenue reported first quarter tax returns of $10.5 million from the roughly 400 marijuana businesses selling recreational products. Businesses began remitting taxes to the state after a state-imposed 25 percent tax kicked in in January for medical dispensaries taking part in the state’s early start program.

That money was solely generated from medical marijuana dispensaries that were permitted to begin selling products

to the public for recreational use.

A slew of applicants have applied for state for licenses to open new retail sites strictly for recreational sales.

The permanent tax rate on retail sales of recreational marijuana will be 17 percent, once the recreational program is fully implemented, according the DOR. Medical marijuana is not taxed in Oregon.

Commissioner Earl Fisher noted citizens told commissioners last year that the marijuana industry could be a “cash cow” for the county, when the board was considering rules and regulations for marijuana businesses.

“I think the people who voted for marijuana should not oppose a tax on it,” Fisher said.

Even if voters in the outlying areas of Columbia County are asked to vote on a tax measure, it’s unclear whether neighboring cities will also pitch a tax.

City councilors in Scappoose narrowly voted in January to ban early sales of recreational marijuana in city limits. Some councilors indicated they may push for a ballot measure that would ask city residents to approve a permanent ban on all recreational sales in Scappoose.

Commissioner Henry Heimuller said he’d like to see cities get on board with the same measure to avoid customers buying marijuana products cheaper in neighboring cities.

“It just seems like to me, from a fairness standpoint, what we should try to do is work with the cities and say ‘If we’re gonna do this, we should try and do it together, or not at all’,” Heimuller said.

As of May 20, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which also handles marijuana licensing, reported 977 applications for recreational marijuana licenses. Of those applications received, the state had approved 26 licenses.