Economic Impacts of Marijuana Legalization

With changes coming locally in Pennsylvania, with the state’s Department of Health releasing permits for medical marijuana growers and processors as well as dispensaries late last month, it seemed high time to take a look at the economic impacts of marijuana legalization efforts in other states.

Colorado anticipated $70 million in marijuana tax collections per year, but it hit $121 million in 2015 and over $140 million in the calendar year 2016.1 One estimate put the economic impact for the state of Colorado at $2.4 billion.

In Washington, tax revenues are slowly ramping up, but still far short of the estimated $388 million annually estimated in the legalization effort. Excise tax revenues from marijuana were $62 million in FY 2015, $134 million in FY 2016 and expected to hit $270 million for FY 2017.

Whether all states will hit these targets is not yet clear, and there has not been any analysis of whether legalization has offset or increased other public sector costs. We don’t fully know if legalization has produced any savings from reduced drug enforcement costs, or if those savings are offset by increases elsewhere.

It may be some years before we can really examine the impact of legalization on public costs, but there are other impacts that are receiving less attention. The legalization of marijuana at the state level has created a fundamental conflict with federal law where it is still illegal and controlled as a Schedule 1 drug, the most serious category of illegal substances that have no currently-accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. As a Schedule 1 drug, the funds for research on medical uses are restricted, so it is even harder to get marijuana reclassified (as could happen if research proved that its medical use was beneficial). As recently as August of 2016, the DEA rejected reclassification based on the recommendations of the FDA.

The US Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) indicated in what is known as the Cole Memo that they would not charge a bank with federal crimes for accepting marijuana money if the financial institution ensures that all state laws and the directives of the Department of Justice have been followed. This situation puts a significant resource burden on institutions that effectively makes accepting these deposit not profitable. Some credit unions and “money service businesses” such as PayQwick are entering the marijuana market, but the uncertain legal patchwork they operate under provides a limited solution.

As a result, marijuana businesses that are legal in their home states cannot use banks or many traditional banking services.They have to pay all of their bills, taxes, and payroll in cash. They can’t get loans or mortgages, and they can’t build credit.

These problems can also extend to companies that supply marijuana businesses and all of their employees. If your income comes from an activity that is not allowed by federal law, then you as an employee may be barred from using a bank or getting credit. Furthermore, since these businesses are paying their workers in cash, any individual with a bank account would be subject to additional scrutiny for making large amounts of cash deposits. This is such a new industry that the potential problems facing employees in these businesses have not yet surfaced, but it is something that policymakers should be considering before significant problems emerge.

 

1.  See Joseph Henchman, Marijuana Legalization and Taxes: Lessons for Other States from Colorado and Washington, Tax Foundation Special Report (Apr. 20, 2016).