Executive director of the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation Beverly Duran, right, hands Pueblo East High School grad Moriyah Garcia her scholarship certificate at a ceremony at the Pueblo County Courthouse on June 20, 2017. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Colorado students given $420,000 in marijuana tax-funded scholarships

Marijuana taxes paid the lion’s share of the new Pueblo County Scholarship Fund that on Tuesday awarded 210 students $2,000 each for the 2017-18 academic year.

But Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace said much of the credit is due to the southern Colorado sunshine that blasted those students at the scholarship award ceremony held on the steps of the county courthouse.

The region’s abundant natural resource has made the county a hub for the burgeoning outdoor- and greenhouse-grown cannabis industry, Pace told The Cannabist. An excise tax levied on the plant’s first point of wholesale transfer paid for what Pueblo County calls a first-of-its-kind scholarship program.

Last year the excise tax was 2 percent, Pace said. It’s scheduled to grow 1 percent annually, eventually topping out at 5 percent. Half of the tax dollars collected go to the scholarship fund, with the other half allocated for community enhancement projects.

“For years, our community has discussed creating local scholarships that could provide opportunity and help break cycles of poverty,” Pace said. “The Pueblo County Scholarship Fund will change lives, families and benefit generations to come.”

All Pueblo County high school graduates who plan on residing in the county and attending Pueblo Community College or Colorado State University-Pueblo are eligible for the annual scholarship, which is administered in partnership with the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation.

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Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace addresses scholarship recipients during a ceremony at the Pueblo County Courthouse on Tuesday, June 20. This year, 210 students each received $2000 scholarships from the Pueblo County Scholarship Fund awarding a total of $420,000 in scholarships for the 2017-18 academic year. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Pace was a driving force behind the creation of the county’s marijuana excise tax, approved by voters in 2015. He said it was designed to ensure that Pueblo, a Hispanic-majority community, benefits from Colorado’s cannabis boom.

“There are vast opportunities in cannabis — from growing to research — and we want to make sure all Coloradans benefit, not just a select few,” he said.

A pilot version of the scholarship program launched last year, with 23 students benefiting.

Pace said he is particularly excited that the scholarships are helping students attend CSU-Pueblo, which is also utilizing cannabis tax revenue.

The school opened the Institute of Cannabis Research (ICR) in 2016 to study a broad array of topics such as industrial hemp cultivation, the medical efficacy of cannabidiol and the impact the marijuana industry is having on local economies.

ICR is funded by a unique state-county partnership combining $900,000 from the state’s marijuana tax cash fund and $270,000 in marijuana excise tax funds collected by Pueblo County and designated for community enhancement. In April, the institute hosted its first international, multidisciplinary cannabis research conference headlined by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist known as the “father of cannabis research.”

The fact that this year’s scholarships totaled $420,000 is pure coincidence, Pace said, noting that the fund hit that figure after the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative contributed a matching grant of nearly $50,000.