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PD Editorial: Yes on Measure A, the cannabis tax: If not, what is the alternative?

There’s no official argument against Measure A to be found in the ballot statement mailed out to Sonoma County voters. But there’s plenty of arguments to be found in the media, including on cable TV and on these pages.

In addition to the Close to Home column on today’s Forum front (page B9), a number of letter writers have voiced their opposition in recent days to Measure A, which calls for a tax on medical and non-medical cannabis businesses in Sonoma County.

Growers contend the proposed tax of up to 10 percent on gross receipts would be crippling for the industry. Others, including the Sonoma County Republican Party, oppose it on grounds that the special election is too expensive and that the revenue from the tax is undesignated and goes directly to the general fund.

It’s true that it’s not cheap to hold a special election in Sonoma County. This one is costing about $400,000. But the timing was necessary given that voters just approved the legalization of recreational use of cannabis on Nov. 8 and the county needs to have its permitting process in place soon to ensure growers and others will be able to meet the state’s timeline for licensing. Retail sales by state-licensed cannabis establishments are scheduled to begin on Jan. 1.

Thus, rejecting this measure for the cost is pointless given that it would simply require more money to be spent to put the issue before voters at some later date. Talk about a waste.

As for the complaint that the funds from the cannabis tax would go directly to the general fund, how is that any different from most other tax revenue and fees government receives from businesses, whether it’s from sales taxes, property taxes or excise taxes? Most of those revenues go into general funds as well. This is not a special tax. This is simply taxing an entire business sector that has been in the shadows for too long, an industry that has long encouraged voters that if marijuana was legalized, then local governments could tax and regulate it just like any other business. That’s what Measure A does.

Even if the county went to voters seeking a specific tax - meaning the revenue could only be spent, for example, on regulation and enforcement of the ordinance - such a measure would require a two-thirds majority to pass. As past elections have shown in the county, that’s a tough threshold to achieve for any measure, even one that comes with no opposition.

But in the end, the one question that voters need to ask before voting on Tuesday is this: If Sonoma County rejects Measure A, what is the alternative? The county has already indicated, as it should, that there will be no permitting process unless a funding mechanism is created. How would the next ballot measure be better?

As we have noted before, the 10 percent tax that the county is proposing is what is allowed by the state. Moreover, it’s on par with what many other counties have already approved, including Monterey, Santa Cruz and Mendocino counties as well as the cities of Cloverdale, Vallejo and Santa Cruz. All have approved general tax measures with a maximum of 10 percent of gross receipts. But Sonoma County supervisors have already indicated that they will begin with a 5 percent tax on manufacturers and no tax on distributors, labs and other businesses. Some jurisdictions are starting out with higher rates.

Is it too high? We don’t believe so, especially when considering the high cost associated with regulating this industry at the local level, whether it involves law enforcement or environmental cleanup caused by illegal pot farms. The industry will finally start paying its share through the estimated $6.3 million generated by this tax.

The bottom line is Measure A?offers the best opportunity to move forward with a tax and regulation system that is flexible, fair and on par with what other cities and counties are doing. Rejecting this with the hope that a better measure awaits is wishful thinking. Vote yes on Measure A.

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