The High Cost of a Rocky Mountain High

This column begins with a disclaimer: I am about to whine about a problem so First World that The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills just called and told me to “take it down a notch, drama queen!” I am originally from Idaho, where we had just two strains – “got some” and “don’t” – but my past dozen years have been spent in Potland*, Oregon, as a caregiver in the medical marijuana program.

I’m not new to shopping for marijuana in legal stores. Besides the medical dispensaries I’ve visited in Oregon, Washington, and California, I’ve purchased legal weed in Vancouver, WA, just over the river from Portland. It was actually “Legal Weed”; that was the brand name on the doob tube the joint came in. I also remember that legal weed cost way too much, but since I was only buying that one joint for the novelty of the doob tube, I didn’t pay it much attention.

I decided to road trip from Portland to Denver for the US Cannabis Cup, mostly to prove I could do it without getting arrested (it’s a long story you can read if you’d care to). That meant traversing Idaho and Wyoming without weed. I stopped for a day in Boise to visit family, then drove to and slept in Rock Springs, Wyoming, before making the drive south to Colorado. I was two days without weed and my back was sore from all the driving. Where’s the first legal pot shop?

It turns out to be a shop in Fort Collins, CO. I went in and decided on just a small buy, something to get me through a couple of days until I meet up with Denver friends. I’ve become fond of vapor pens – they don’t harsh my voice for the talk show – so I ordered a cartridge of Durbin Poison (I likes my heady sativas) and a couple of pre-roll joints.

The cost? $85! The joints were 10 bucks apiece and the vapor cartridge was $65. “Sixty-five a gram is a little steep,” I told my budtender, “I’m getting these in Portland for 30 bucks.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he replied, “those are half-gram cartridges.” I was struck speechless. The budtender continued, “You’d probably get them cheaper on the medical side.” Great, I thought, now I’m paying a health surcharge. “All right, that will be $99.79.”

A hundred bucks for a half-gram vapor cartridge and two mid-grade salad joints! That’s because in addition to the $85 for the products, there is the Colorado Excise Tax, which was $2.47, the Fort Collins City Tax of $3.27, the Larimer County Tax at $0.55, and the State Retail Marijuana Sales Tax of $8.50, and that gets you to $99.79. That’s an effective 17.4% tax rate for a purchase that would have cost me $44.00 in an Oregon dispensary. Hell, I could have purchased two mid-grade salad joints in Portland just for what I paid in taxes alone!

I didn’t fight for marijuana legalization just to see the gouging of cannabis consumers like me transferred from illegal entities to legal entities. These prices and taxes must come down. I’m assured by my friends in Washington and Colorado that they are, actually, which only shows that the prices were ridiculously high and are now only slightly less ridiculous. I was at a dispensary last night where the low-grade ounces sell for $270 before tax. When I left Portland, my local dispensary was selling an Easter Special on a low grade ounce for $129 with no tax, because we’re Oregon.

And when I say the prices and taxes must come down, that’s for the good of legalization nationally, not just my wallet. None of my 20-odd friends in Denver shops at pot shops; they all have their sources for $200 ounces on what the mainstream calls “the black market” but what pot people know as “my guy (or gal).” The longer that continues, the more our opposition dominates the political debate with, “See, legalization does nothing to stop the black market!” and the harder it gets to pass legalization in California or any other state in 2016 and beyond. The more states create tax projections based on the demand from current users multiplied by the ridiculous tax rates they won’t abide, the more our opposition gets to say “see, they said legalization would raise a bajillion tax dollars and it didn’t happen!”

My hope is on my home state of Oregon to ramp up production and bottom-out prices. Our tax is by weight, so the goal of the state tax revenuers will be to move weight, not maintain high price to take a percentage of. Our price drop will directly affect next-door Washington and California. Their price drops might make Colorado think twice about its taxes and regulation, but surrounded by a red state buffer, they may not have that much pressure. But I want to see a $50 legal ounce before 2020, dammit!

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