Pot tax proponents open campaign to fund mental health facilities, treatment
EAGLE — Suicide kills an American every 12 minutes, 44,000 Americans every year and 10 in Eagle County so far this year.
“Think about that,” said Andrew Romanoff, with Mental Health Colorado. “If someone attacked the United States and killed an American every 12 minutes and wiped out 44,000 of us in the course of a year, we would declare war.”
“In some ways, we have declared war, and this is a war we can win,” Romanoff said.
Romanoff was in town Tuesday to help proponents kick off their campaign for 1A, the ballot measure that would institute countywide sales and excise taxes on recreational marijuana to fund mental health treatment.
“When Eagle County passes 1A, it will serve as a model for the rest of Colorado,” Romanoff said. “It’s local. It’s important. It’s a matter of life and death. If we don’t address this problem, people will die.”
Romanoff said he knows that firsthand. One New Year’s Day a couple of years ago, Romanoff’s cousin Melissa was celebrating with their family. With no warning, Melissa went into the backyard and shot herself to death, Romanoff said.
“We are going to spend the rest of our lives, as a family, trying to figure out how we missed the signs, the symptoms of her mental illness. We’ll never know because she hid them really well,” Romanoff said. “Melissa was surrounded by a family of mental health professionals, and she did not want us to know that she was experiencing a mental health disorder.”
Romanoff said her suicide note said, “I’m sorry for the pain this will cause.” Then she said, “Please tell people it was a car accident.”
“Even in death, she did not want people to know what she was experiencing and what she was doing,” Romanoff said.
The family debated Melissa’s last request and decided not to honor it, Romanoff said.
“The last thing she would have wanted is what I have decided to do, making her the poster child for the fight against mental illness,” Romanoff said. “I tell you Melissa’s story not because it’s unique, but because it’s so common.”
Jail’s not the place
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were five times as many people receiving mental health treatments as there are now and significantly fewer people in jails, said Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek.
“Now those numbers are reversed, and five times as many people are in jails,” van Beek said.
Eagle County jail inmates include people with mental health issues because, while they have committed low-level crimes, there’s nowhere else to put them. Getting them the help they need could reduce the number of people returning to jail, van Beek said.
“All we are doing is sliding the Band-Aid on, and they walk out again. There are times we can look at someone and know that within 10 days they’ll be back in contact with law enforcement,” van Beek said.
What if there’s no money?
Ballot measure 1A only taxes recreational marijuana, and that means the money could dry up two ways:
1. If Eagle County voters reject the idea. Opposition is popping up on social media admonishing voters to, “Keep off the grass. Say no to any tax on marijuana.”
2. Earlier this year, the feds made some noise about cracking down on marijuana because it’s still illegal at the federal level.
The second is unlikely, said Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan.
“That genie is out of the bottle,” Ryan said.
Even if recreational marijuana sales end, outside funders and agencies could keep the work going, Ryan said. Among those who have pledged support are Vail Health, Kaiser Permanente, Centura, Valley View Hospital, Aspen Valley Hospital, Mountain Family Health Centers, Mind Springs Health, local law enforcement, Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, the school board and local municipalities.
“It’s such a critical issue that if the funding went away, I think the community would step up through fundraising, grants and through health systems. Keeping people out of the emergency room saves them money,” Ryan said.
It’s worth supporting, said Chris Lindley, Eagle County’s director of health and human services.
“We are going from nothing to being a model for the country. Moving forward, the community also will see the value and I’m certain will support us in continuing this work,” Lindley said.
A half million Coloradans need mental health treatment and are not getting it, Romanoff said.
“Anything we can do to reduce treating it like a criminal justice problem and treat it like a mental health priority would be a big step in the right direction,” Romanoff said. “We’re hoping that so Eagle County goes, so goes Colorado. When 1A passes, we’d like to convince the rest of the state to do the same thing.”
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