On Friday morning, commissioners in Eagle County voted unanimously to add a question to the November ballot. They want voters to decide whether to burden local pot shops and growers with more sales and excise taxes to fund mental health programs. The state wants to know if voters are willing to spend $1.2 million of those tax revenues on these types of initiatives.
Greg Daly, a Speak Up, Reach Out board member, a local suicide prevention program, and Avon’s police chief, applauded the bravery, “I call this a courageous step for filling this void, this vacuum for mental health in our community. It is a huge step in sustainability for people who need hope in their lives.” Currently, the nation is experiencing a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions.
Behavioral and mental health issues are now widespread and commonplace. That is the opinion of Eagle County’s director of human services, Chris Lindley. According to Sheila Sherman of Vail Health, the increasing number of hospitalizations for mental health cases has been climbing rapidly over the last three years. She mentioned the following statistics:
• In 2014, 211 patients entered hospitals for mental health issues.
• By the end of 2015, that number was 385 during the year.
• Then, in 2016, there were 509 hospitalizations for mental health cases.
As Lindley said, “If we were talking about sexually transmitted diseases or the flu, we would be calling those numbers an epidemic.” The Eagle County jail houses many mentally ill patients. Huge numbers end up there. According to Eagle County Sheriff, James van Beek, there is nowhere else for many people with mental health problems to go.
“Last year at this time, 70 percent of the jail inmates were on some kind of medication,” van Beek said. “I still have people in my facility who should not be there. That is not the place for them.” At least 20 percent, perhaps even 25 percent, of incarcerated inmates could avoid jail entirely if only there was a mental facility in the county.
Eagle County commissioner Jill Ryan said, “Half the people incarcerated have their first experience with a mental health professional when they land in jail.” Daly said, “We are the tip of the spear. We deal with those calls. When we are dealing with people under those circumstances, they should be treated as patients, not pseudo-suspects.”
County commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry considers mental health a significant and widespread need that the county should prioritize. “The need is clear, the will to do something is clear. What remained was how to do it. Now, we are asking voters what they think,” Chandler-Henry stated. One fact is clear, though: Tax money generated from legal pot will fund programs and not buildings.
Mind Springs will govern all behavioral and mental health programs, while Mountain Family Health will raise funds separately for buildings, much like a facility under its construction in Frisco. Lindley shared that the state envisions two buildings in all of this, one in Basalt and another in Edwards.
According to Ross Brooks, CEO of Mountain Valley Health, Mountain Family Health is both federally qualified and funded to provide indigent and low-income people with quality medical, dental, and behavioral health care. To qualify as sufficiently poor, individuals must earn 200 percent below the federal poverty line, which is $24,000. For families of four, low-income means below $49,000.
Interim county manager, Bryan Treu, says the county will donate land it owns in Edwards’ Freedom Park for a building. Brooks says that the Edwards building would require between 12,000- and 15,000-square feet per floor. To house a mid-valley annex for the Health and Human Services Department, Treu thinks it likely that the county may need to add another story.
Since Eagle County has no pot tax of its own currently, its cannabis cash comes from the 10 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax collected by the state. Colorado is in its fourth year of regulating legal marijuana sales, and statewide in 2016, excise tax added nearly $200 million to state coffers. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, those taxes stemmed from a whopping $1.3 billion in pot sales.
Eagle County paid Magellan Strategies, a research firm based in Boulder, $14,000 to conduct a poll of voters. The survey questioned approximately 400 potential voters and found as many as 78 percent of them supportive of a tax for mental health. Across Colorado, Eagle County would join 76 other municipalities and 10 counties levying their own marijuana taxes.