Lake County voters to consider local marijuana tax

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With the legal sale of recreational marijuana set to begin Jan. 1 across Montana, Lake County residents are being asked to weigh in on whether to impose a local tax to benefit county and city governments.

Lake County commissioners on Monday unanimously approved a resolution to hold a special election to determine whether a local-option tax of 3% will be implemented beginning in July. Commissioners produced the resolution after the county’s three municipal governments — Polson, Ronan and St. Ignatius — agreed to hold the vote and contribute to the cost of the election.

The county estimates local governments could collectively take in $180,000 annually if voters approve the tax. That number was derived by taking a Missoula estimate and adjusting for population, so actual revenue could be much higher or lower.

The county will hold a public hearing on marijuana sales in January, and the special election is expected to occur in early April. If approved, the tax would go into effect July 5 to coincide with the start of a new fiscal year.

After deciding to seek approval for a local marijuana tax, commissioners also had to decide whether to apply the same tax to recreational and medicinal sales. They settled on a ballot with separate questions regarding medicinal and recreational sales. Commission Chairman Bill Baron said he favored addressing the two types of sales as one. However, commissioners Gayle Decker and Steve Stanley supported the two-question ballot.

“We’ve said it’s about the money,” Baron said Monday. “If it’s about the money, we should just treat them the same.”

“I think the voters should have a say,” Stanley said. “... We have to have an election, so why not give them a chance to weigh in? We don’t do that often.”

Polson City Manager Ed Meece attended Monday’s meeting. Meece approached the commissioners about the possibility of the tax a few months ago.

“I can’t speak for the city commission, but just speaking for the city organization … we’re in support of — whether it’s one question or two — going to the voters and asking for this authority.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, conditions for which medical marijuana is considered appropriate include Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), HIV/AIDS, cancer, Crohn's disease, epilepsy and seizures, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and muscle spasms, severe and chronic pain, and severe nausea.

Medicinal use requires approval of authorized medical professions, who issue medical marijuana cards.

Meece pointed out that the state taxes both types of sales, though the tax rate for medical sales is substantially lower. The state tax on recreational sales will be 20%, compared to 4% for medicinal.

Local governments have agreed on a population-based formula for a revenue split in the event voters approve the tax.

The county would receive half of the revenue. Five percent would go to the Montana Department of Revenue. The remaining 45% would go to the three cities, with 64% of the remainder going to Polson, 25% going to Ronan, and 12% going to St. Ignatius.

Lake County Election Administrator Toni Kramer also attended Monday’s meeting. She said the election would cost approximately $20,000. The county will pay for half of the cost and the cities will contribute the other half based on the revenue formula.

The county’s municipal governments are still working out the details for local regulation of sales. Meece said the Polson Commission will consider multiple ordinances during its next meeting on Monday, Dec. 6.

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