Buying weed: an investment in Pueblo’s future?

A high school senior suffering from an anxiety disorder wasn’t sure if he could attend Colorado State University-Pueblo because the daily drive to and from campus would cause him undue stress. But in the end the student was given the money he needed to help defray the cost of living on campus, and he is able to make it to classes with a lot less aggravation.

What made this possible?

The Pueblo County Scholarship program is expected to receive $700,000 from the cultivation of marijuana this year. The scholarship was approved by county voters in 2015 and the ballot measure states that primarily Pueblo County graduating high school seniors who plan to attend colleges only located inside the county’s boundaries (in essence CSU-Pueblo or Pueblo Community College) are eligible for the scholarship. County Commissioner Sal Pace, who told a story of the student suffering from anxiety who got the scholarship, is the point man for the county regarding the Pueblo scholarship program. Pace adds that the scholarship is not limited to graduating high school seniors. Those Pueblo residents attending college in the county can also apply. When he is asked why the scholarship only applies to colleges within Pueblo County, he says, “We weren’t sure how much money would be available for the first full-year of funding and how far it would go, but we knew the program would grow over time. This year we will have enough funding to give some additional scholarships based on merit and need. I have a vision of eventually guaranteeing a college scholarship to every local kid.”

Pace says he spoke to several students and parents and received nothing but positive responses to the pot-funded scholarship, which started as a non-marijuana-funded pilot program in 2016.

The majority of the money for the scholarships comes directly from cannabis cultivators who now pay an excise tax each month at a rate of 3 percent of the crops’ unprocessed retail value when the crop is sold or transferred to a retail outlet, even if the retail outlet owns its own marijuana grow house. That tax rate is supposed to increase to 4 percent next year and be capped at 5 percent in 2020. Yet Pace is trying to convince his fellow county commissioners to cap the tax rate at 3 percent this year. Pace says he wants to keep the excise tax rate at its current level “so we don’t drive the small businesses out of business.”

Incidentally, the marijuana money for the scholarship represents roughly half of the total tax dollars collected from pot growers. The rest of the unprocessed cannabis excise tax revenue goes to fund other community enhancement and infrastructure projects.

And Pace doesn’t seem to have any reservations about where the lion’s share of the Pueblo County Scholarship funds come from. “Voters voted for it,” he says, adding, “How do you defend taxes on cars?”

Pace defends the use of the cannabis tax for the scholarship by weighing it against the greater good it would bring the community as a whole. “Our ultimate goal is that the next generation in Pueblo can have a bright future, opportunity for success, and to live their dreams,” he says. “The more educated we are, the more [job] opportunities will come our way.”

Students who benefitted
Twenty-year-old Janet Chavez, a CSU-Pueblo sophomore and Pueblo County Scholarship recipient, also has no qualms about the fact the majority of her scholarship’s funding comes from pot growers. “It [the sale of marijuana] allows me to benefit the community,” says the liberal studies major with a minor in elementary education. “I am able to go to college and to give back to the community in a positive way.”

Also having a clear conscience about cannabis dollars funding his scholarship is Xavier Madrid, who is 20 years old and a CSU-Pueblo junior studying sociology and criminology. “Marijuana has always been seen in a negative light,” he says. “I am just so glad that something so controversial can be utilized in such a positive way seeing that it is investing in the future leaders of America.”

Students receiving the up-to-four-year scholarship, the money from which goes directly to the postsecondary learning institution, are required to perform 40 hours of community service annually throughout their college career. “It’s a great opportunity to serve the community as you’re going through your college experience,” Chavez says.

And Madrid agrees.

“[Community service] has been something I take tremendous pride in,” he says. “For the past couple of years, I have been able to be an assistant baseball coach during the summer, where I taught kids the fundamentals of the game as well as tutor current high school students … . It has not only given me the opportunity to be a role model for those I’ve helped, but also [allows me to] give back to the community that has been my home and was able to invest in me when I needed it the most.”

Chavez, who says she chose to attend college “to receive a higher education and be successful,” would have had to work a full-time job to help pay for tuition and books without the scholarship. Now, she says, she only works part time, which gives her more study time.

Madrid is attending college “not only for [him]self but for [his] family.” He represents the first generation of his family to attend college. Madrid says, “I knew I needed a degree to be appealing to the job market and school has always been something I have excelled in and something I take tremendous pride in. So I knew that college was the right path for me.”

Without the scholarship, Madrid says he “would constantly have to worry about having enough money to cover the tuition.” He says he is one of two children in a family who “never had the financial capability to pay for college [for one child] let alone two tuition bills.” Madrid adds that the scholarship “has helped alleviate the financial burden that comes along with college and given [him] the capability to give back to those who invested in [his] college education.”

Both students said they were able to get through the scholarship application process with ease. “It was a very straight-forward application,” Chavez says. “I went to the website, and it was very simple. Things flowed easily.”

Madrid also says he made it through the scholarship application process with little to no hassle. “It was one of the easiest scholarship applications I have done,” he says. “I simply went to phef.net, printed off the application, received my letters of recommendation, and, boom, I was done.”

But Madrid, who was part of the 2016 pilot program for the scholarship, says it could have been better publicized then. “I learned from my Colorado GEAR UP adviser at the last second seeing that this whole scholarship was relatively new,” he says, adding that he thinks “the whole idea of marijuana funding college education” resulted in high school seniors shying away from the scholarship and kept them from encouraging other seniors to apply for it.

Pilot program grows

The Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation, or PHEF, is the group the commissioners contracted to manage the Pueblo County Scholarship fund. PHEF receives 10 percent of the total scholarship fund’s annual take for its troubles. Beverly Duran, PHEF’s executive director, says the 2016 pilot program, which consisted of 25 scholarship recipients, has been successful. Of the 25, 23 recipients are still attending college on the scholarship. The other two each have graduated college with associate degrees. Last year, however, was the first time cannabis excise tax dollars were used to fund the scholarship, as stated in the 2015 ballot measure creating the scholarship.

And last year, Duran says 210 students received scholarships. She adds that she tries to keep each scholarship’s value at $2,000 a year per recipient because it can help cover the cost of living on campus (especially for students who don’t have cars), has allowed students to work part-time instead of full-time, or can determine whether a student goes to college at all. (Yet make no mistake, a $2,000 annual scholarship amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket when it comes to overall college expenses. For example, CSU-Pueblo reveals that the cost of living on campus alone is $5,830 per academic year and the money covers roughly three credit hours at the university.)

Last year’s scholarships totaled $420,000, a far cry from the pilot program’s $50,000. And, if all goes as planned, this year’s scholarship allotment of $750,000, (the bulk of which – as stated before – comes from the sale or transfer of unprocessed marijuana), just might fund scholarships for up to 375 students.

As far as publicizing the scholarship, a lot has changed since the pilot program. Commissioner Pace says high school guidance counselors are well-informed of the scholarship’s existence. And Duran says her organization is getting the word out about the scholarships through advertising, articles in print (like this one), and stories airing on area television stations’ news broadcasts. She says even large banners telling of the scholarship’s availability are strung up in high school hallways. Yet alas, Duran laments, despite all the effort, some students and parents still say they weren’t aware of the scholarship.

A COSI alliance

The Pueblo County Scholarship receives state funding from the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, or COSI, in addition to the cannabis excise tax revenue. Although it is said COSI offers “matching funds” to those raised through the marijuana tax, the funds don’t match at all.

So far, PHEF has received two COSI awards – one for $226,597 in 2016 and another for $210,685 last year – each are spread over four years in varying amounts, according to COSI’s director Shelley Banker. She adds that those funds are encumbered. “We do not anticipate funding decisions from the Legislature to have an impact on those current commitments,” Banker says. “Similarly, PHEF and Pueblo County have another opportunity to apply [this year] for $214,291 from our program.” PHEF’s Duran says she plans to start the paperwork on the county’s request for the 2018 COSI allotment, which will be awarded in the summer, soon.

Statewide, COSI offers $7.5 million annually to communities “based on an assessment of total dollars in our COSI fund, projected future spending, and community participation,” Banker says. She adds that “COSI is seeking an additional $4 million in state funding this legislative session so that we can increase the number of program and scholarship grants and serve even more students through our grants in future years.” The COSI request is part of the Long Bill, or the state’s budget bill. General Assembly discussions on the Long Bill begin to pick up around the middle of this month.

However, any additional statewide COSI allotment, should the General Assembly approve it as part of the Long Bill, would not be available until 2019. “The $4 million appropriation would contribute significantly to the sustainability of our program long term,” Banker says, “and would help maintain current levels of … scholarship aid, like that accessed in Pueblo.”

Banker espouses the value COSI brings to the Pueblo community. “It’s partnerships like that with Pueblo County and Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation that contribute to the success of COSI statewide, and allow us together to help more Colorado students pursue and complete postsecondary education,” she says. “The particular source [a marijuana tax] of the match committed by the Pueblo County commissioners is one example of how communities are creatively utilizing our matching grant opportunity to leverage state funding and make dollars go further.”

A cannabis conundrum

It may be a challenge for some to philosophically justify tacitly advocating the recreational use of cannabis, but through a vote of the people of Pueblo County, recreational marijuana now fits into the same category as recreational alcohol and tobacco. Yet tax money from each of those substances has been going toward improving communities for decades in terms of sales taxes and other means. And that’s what the Pueblo County Scholarship program does in its own small way – improve the community. COSI’s Banker has this to say about Pueblo cannabis-funded scholarship: “Not only has the community embraced this opportunity, but they are also showing success with the money. Our latest outcome report notes that Pueblo County students receiving COSI funds through the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation had a 95 percent retention rate.”

She adds, “National best practices and our own research at the Colorado Department of Higher Education indicate that student support services [like Pueblo’s use of COSI funds combined with the wholesale marijuana excise tax] are key to a student’s ability to persist and make it to the finish line.”

And that “finish line” is one shared by a community eager to both groom more well-educated citizens and attract industries offering better-paying jobs.

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