Colorado voters to decide if marijuana taxes will fund mental health care | ParkRecord.com

Colorado voters to decide if marijuana taxes will fund mental health care

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily

Eagle County, Colorado, voters will decide whether to tax marijuana to pay for expanded mental health programs.

The Eagle County commissioners voted unanimously Friday morning to put a question on the November ballot asking if voters are willing to add local sales and excise taxes to local marijuana retail sales and cultivation and spend as much as $1.2 million of that new tax money on mental health programs.

“I call this a courageous step for filling this void, this vacuum for mental health in our community. It’s a huge step in sustainability … for people who need hope in their lives,” said Greg Daly, Avon’s police chief and board member of Speak Up, Reach Out, a local suicide-prevention organization.

MENTAL HEALTH ‘EPIDEMIC’

Mental and behavioral health issues have become an “epidemic,” said Chris Lindley, Eagle County’s director of human services.

Vail Health’s Sheila Sherman said the hospital’s number of mental health cases has skyrocketed in the past three years:

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  • 211 in 2014
  • 385 in 2015
  • 509 in 2016

“If we were talking about sexually transmitted diseases or the flu, we’d be calling those numbers an epidemic,” Lindley said.

Many people with mental health issues land in the Eagle County jail because there’s nowhere else for them, said James van Beek, Eagle County Sheriff.

“Last year at this time, 70 percent of the jail inmates were on some kind of medication. I still have people in my facility who should not be there. That is not the place for them,” van Beek said.

Jail could be avoided for 20 percent to 25 percent of the people incarcerated, if the county had a mental health facility, van Beek said.

Half the people incarcerated have their first experience with a mental health professional when they land in jail, said Jill Ryan, Eagle County commissioner.

The cops don’t like marijuana, but it’s here, said Daly and van Beek.

“We’re the tip of the spear. We deal with those calls,” Daly said. “When we’re dealing with people under those circumstances, they should be treated as patients, not pseudo-suspects.”

Mental health is a widespread need the county needs to focus on, said Kathy Chandler-Henry, county commissioner.

“The need is clear, the will to do something is clear. What remained was how to do it. Now we’re asking the voters what they think,” Chandler-Henry said.

PROGRAMS, NOT BUILDINGS

The pot tax money will pay for programs, not buildings.

While Mind Springs will run the mental and behavioral health programs, Mountain Family Health would fund a building separately, similar to a facility it’s constructing in Frisco. Two buildings are envisioned as part of all this — one in Edwards and one in Basalt, Lindley said.

Mountain Family Health is a federally qualified health center that provides medical, dental and behavioral health care for low-income people, said Ross Brooks, Mountain Valley Health CEO.

In their case, low income means 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s $24,000 for an individual and $49,000 for a family of four, Brooks said.

The county owns land in Edwards’ Freedom Park that it would donate for a building, said Bryan Treu, interim county manager.

An Edwards building would be between 12,000 and 15,000 square feet per floor, Brooks said.

The county would likely add another story to house a mid-valley annex for the county’s health and human services department, Treu said.

COLORADO’S CASH CROP

Because Eagle County does not currently have its own pot tax, the county’s marijuana money comes from the state’s 10 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax.

Last year was Colorado’s third year of regulated pot sales. Colorado’s statewide excise tax generated nearly $200 million in statewide marijuana tax revenue in 2016, stemming from $1.3 billion in marijuana sales, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

Eagle County spent $14,000 for a poll by Boulder-based Magellan Strategies. Poll results found that as many as 78 percent of the 400 likely voters questioned said they would support a tax.

Eagle County would joins 10 counties and 76 municipalities across Colorado that levy their own pot taxes.