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Gazette Premium Content Marijuana tax debate leads to General Assembly gridlock

KRISTEN WYATT Updated: April 27, 2013 at 12:00 am

DENVER (AP) — Marijuana taxation brought the Colorado Legislature to a standstill early Saturday, with the House giving up and heading home without voting after the pot debate stretched past midnight.

The standstill was not exactly caused by the bill to tax pot more than 30 percent, though Republicans were in the middle of trying to lower the tax rate when the House stopped work. Instead, the breakdown came as a result of frayed nerves after long, divisive debates on unrelated measures, from a renewable energy bill to an education funding overhaul.

The House managed to finish a vote on one marijuana measure late Friday. That bill would set the nation's first regulations for how recreational pot can be grown, packaged and sold.

"We are in a new era," Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon said when introducing the sweeping regulation bill.

The measure, which needs one more vote before heading to the Senate, sets product safety rules and marijuana purchasing limits for out-of-state visitors.

The House will resume the marijuana tax debate on Monday. The bill would give recreational pot a 15 percent excise tax and a special pot sales tax of 15 percent, in additional to local sales taxes. Republicans were seeking to lower the tax to 10 percent excise and 10 percent sales taxes.

When House Democratic Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst interrupted a Republican lawmaker talking about his amendment, trying to extend the legislative session past midnight, the chamber's Republican caucus stormed off the floor in protest. After about 30 minutes, House sergeants retrieved Republicans from their offices and the debate continued, though ruling Democrats shut down business after letting the interrupted Republican finish his speech.

The walkout was not directly caused by the marijuana tax debate. But it was the latest twist in an increasingly odd path for marijuana regulation in Colorado.

On Friday, marijuana activists blasted a proposal to send marijuana legalization back to voters this fall through a new tax ballot measure. That measure would repeal recreational pot in the state constitution if voters don't approve the pot taxes.

Marijuana activists immediately blasted the proposal as a backhanded effort to repeal the pot vote, in which 55 percent of Coloradans chose to flout federal drug law and declare pot legal in small amounts for adults over 21.

"It's clear that the intent ... is to prevent marijuana from being legal and being regulated and being controlled," said Mason Tvert, who led last year's campaign to add recreational pot to the state constitution, which has allowed medical marijuana since 2000.

Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, said the whole purpose of legalizing recreational marijuana was to raise money for education and other programs. "So if there's no money, we shouldn't have marijuana," Crowder said.

A volunteer group that has been critical of proposed marijuana regulations, Smart Colorado, praised the effort to get rid of recreational pot without approval of the taxes.

A spokesman for the group, Eric Anderson, said in a statement that marijuana activists "sold the ballot issue to Colorado voters as a way to pay for state priorities like education, but increasingly it's looking like it could be a net drain on the state budget."

The marijuana measure approved last year won more votes than President Barack Obama, who carried the state. The pot measure directed lawmakers to come back to the ballot with a tax proposal, with much of the money going to school construction. Because of Colorado's Byzantine tax laws, the recreational pot taxes can't be levied until voters again sign off on them.

In Washington state, the only other place where voters last year approved recreational pot, the ballot measure set taxes at 75 percent, settling the question. Both states are still waiting to find out whether the federal government plans to sue to block retail sales of the drug, set to begin next year.

The Colorado repeal effort wouldn't apply to medical marijuana, which voters approved in 2000.

Ruling Democrats said Friday they doubt lawmakers would send pot legalization back to voters this year.

"That's almost like saying to voters, 'Vote for this, or else,'" said Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge. "I don't think you threaten voters like that. When over 55 percent of the people vote for something, I think we have to respect that."

Marijuana repeal debate could dominate the Legislature's closing days.

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