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State economists mull cost of legal marijuana

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – How much money would the legalization of recreational marijuana generate for the state? 

That's the question before state economists as they consider the potential impacts of a proposed constitutional amendment that would regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol. 

Their job is to determine how much money it could generate or cost the state if it were to be approved by voters.

"This is a beginning point of all the different governmental things that you're going to have to have in place for this to work," said Don Kangston, who represents the Florida House on the Financial Impact Estimating Conference.

Steven Hougland, with the Florida Sheriffs Association, testified to economists that legalizing marijuana would impose significant costs related to police K-9s.

"The safest thing to do would be to eliminate the dogs that search for marijuana, which is any drug dog," Hougland said.

The Division of Business and Professional Regulation, which would be tasked with overseeing the legal cannabis market, also projected high startup costs.

"The staffing projection, that's 225 full-time positions," said Thomas Philpot, with DBPR.

But those costs could be offset by sales. Economists estimate of the 2 million cannabis-using Floridians over 21, about half would enter the retail market.

However, Amy Baker, with the Office of Economic and Demographic Research, said the number of those who choose to continue purchasing on the black market will largely depend on how heavily the Legislature chooses to tax marijuana. In other states, the tax rate is between 10% and 30%.

"If the Legislature comes in and chooses to do more, you would probably have fewer people coming out of the black market," Baker said.

The proposed amendment still has to receive approval from the Florida Supreme Court and gather more than 600,000 additional signatures before it could go before voters. 

Even then, it would need 60% voter approval to pass.

Attorney General Ashley Moody has asked the state Supreme Court to strike down the proposed amendment because she believes it is too long and would mislead voters. 

There are also two other competing ballot initiatives that would also legalize recreational marijuana.