Oklahoma Will Likely Legalize Medical Cannabis

Powerful players in Oklahoma’s business, medical and law enforcement communities banded together in recent weeks for a nearly $1 million barrage of electioneering and advertising that sought to dissuade voters across the state from passing what would be one of the most liberal medical cannabis laws in the country when they head to the polls today. 

If the ballot initiative, known as State Question 788, passes, Oklahoma would become the first state to allow doctors to recommend cannabis for medical use for any condition for anyone 18 and older. It would become one of the few places where patients seeking access to cannabis wouldn’t be required to register with the state, according to a fact sheet from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The state of Maine has voluntary, but not required, patient registration for medical cannabis.

If the ballot initiative, known as State Question 788, passes, Oklahoma would become the first state to allow doctors to recommend cannabis for medical use for any condition for anyone 18 and older. It would become one of the few places where patients seeking access to cannabis wouldn’t be required to register with the state, according to a fact sheet from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The state of Maine has voluntary, but not required, patient registration for medical cannabis.

Underscoring the potential for a seemingly immediate sea change on cannabis issues in the deeply red state, the Oklahoma narcotics department reported that cannabis-related arrests made up 41 percent of the department’s drug-related arrests in 2016. The department began its examination of medical cannabis by saying, “medical marijuana does not exist,” and pointed out that the federal government has not recommended whole plant cannabis use for medical use.

That messaging, combined with an aggressive blitz from anti-cannabis groups, still aren’t expected to deter a majority — a News9 and Sooner Poll put voters at 57 percent for SQ 788 in late May — from ushering in Oklahoma’s medical cannabis era. The political group “SQ 788 is Not Medical” has spent about $815,000 and the Oklahoma State Medical Association chipped in $95,000 against the ballot question, according to state filings with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

Mike Haines, a pastor in tiny Stroud, Oklahoma, has been organizing for months with a small group of volunteers, seeking a deliberate discussion on the ballot referendum’s flaws. Haines concedes that most people seem to have already made up their minds, and he expects the ballot initiative to pass — bringing with it, he believes, a host of problems.

Haines says he sees how a well-regulated medical cannabis program might be beneficial — he sees it in his own work counseling the sick, and during his visits to cancer patients. But he believes the wording of Oklahoma’s ballot initiative will restrict state leaders from putting in place appropriate regulations. For example, since the only requirement to obtain medical cannabis under the new law would be a recommendation from a state board certified doctor — for any condition — he believes many will use cannabis recreationally, leading to a host of health problems down the road.

What college-age person, he contends, can’t truthfully claim symptoms of anxiety to a doctor? More availability of cannabis, he says, will also lead to a bigger black market and more people using the drug.

Depending on how Oklahoma chooses to regulate cannabis, those worries could be founded. Colorado offers something of a case study, as it legalized medicinal cannabis in 2000 and adult-use in 2012. There, cannabis was ingested by more young children and there were a greater percentage of traffic fatalities caused by those with cannabis in their bloodstream as access to the drug got easier, according to a regional governmental study by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Some critics have disputed some of the study’s findings and urged people not to draw broad conclusions about the safety of cannabis.   

Haines compares the zealousness of medical cannabis proponents to those in the early days of opioids, leading to a black market and prescription epidemic of addictive opioid medication. Regular use of cannabis, especially at a young age, could lead to dependency. Estimates range from as few as one in six to half of regular users who experience relatively mild withdrawal symptoms such as anger and anxiety, according to a 2011 National Institutes of Health study.

“We can do this in a smarter way, in a better way,” Haines said. “But people don’t want to listen to that. People want to say there are no negatives;  there are negatives and they’re pretty significant. People…are willing to just throw the doors open on an industry that is going to make millions of dollars and think nothing bad is going to happen.”

Haines and Frank Grove, a pro-cannabis organizer who has worked for years on the medical cannabis issue and formed the political action committee “Vote Yes on 788,” agree on one thing: Oklahomans will largely vote across all party and religious lines for cannabis because they believe it’s the compassionate thing to do for those who are suffering and could benefit.

“The primary issue that motivates me and everybody else at this point is compassion,” Grove told Cannabis Wire. “Ultimately, this is about caring about our neighbors. It’s something that resonates in Oklahoma. We have a lot of natural disasters here for instance. When that happens people drop the pretenses and just help each other.”

Grove, a self-described libertarian, said the campaign against the ballot initiative hurt itself with mixed messaging, some of which was false. A widely televised advertisement from the primary anti-cannabis PAC “SQ 788 is Not Medical” misstated the plain language of the ballot initiative by saying it was all about recreational use, that those seeking cannabis wouldn’t need to have a medical condition to obtain it, and that cannabis smoking would be rampant in public places. The ads provoked a rebuke by Tulsa World cartoonist Bruce Plante, who drew a couple watching the outlandish statements on television and saying, “Wonder what they’re smoking?”  

Still, Grove admits that the referendum wording isn’t perfect, calling it a “shell bill” that will require lawmakers to pass a strong regulatory structure for more detailed policies and procedures governing the new industry. Grove said that proponents learned from mistakes in other states when crafting the question, calling for the law to come into effect within 30 days and a regulatory structure to be in place within 60 days.

To address the regulatory challenges both proponents and opponents are worried about, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin intends to call a special session of the legislature to address regulating medical cannabis soon after the results of the initiative are tallied, the governor’s spokesman, Michael McNutt, said in an email to Cannabis Wire. McNutt said that the governor remains in contact with legislative leaders about how the state should respond.

“Conversations have been ongoing since this year’s legislative session on developing a proper regulatory framework for medical marijuana,” McNutt wrote. “The governor is interested in seeing those talks continue, with the highest priority given to the health and safety of Oklahomans.”

Grove said that groups have been meeting behind the scenes for weeks but no clear framework has emerged.

Lawmakers have hinted that they could make big changes to regulate cannabis. While the ballot initiative places control under the Department of Health, Oklahoma’s house majority leader told News4 lawmakers are considering a wide array of options.

“Should we look at the possibility of a cannabis commission instead of the Department of Health?” asked Rep. Jon Echols.

As the likelihood of Oklahoma voters approving the ballot initiative passing gets closer to reality, the state’s leaders seem to have been caught by surprise. Grove said that many didn’t understand the depth of the organizing effort — he and others involved in the local version of the Occupy Wall Street movement going back to around 2010 have been speaking to community groups working on the grassroots campaign ever since. And even though the group’s 2014 ballot initiative was unsuccessful in getting enough signatures to be placed on the ballot — organizers were 50,000 short — Grove said the infrastructure and relationships for the current campaign have been forming ever since.

For lawmakers, many wanted a bill — modeled on New York state’s highly restrictive medical cannabis regime — to pass last year and neuter SQ 788 if it were to pass. Senators ended up killing that measure in March because they feared a voter backlash, according to the Tulsa World. When that measure failed, opponents were left scrambling.

“The opposition has ignored this issue for the last four years,” he said. “They’re running a scare-ad campaign to get the church folk to think that people will be able to light up at Sunday mass.”

Oklahoma’s plan strays from a national trend: since the first wide-open medical cannabis law in the country in California more than two decades ago, states have moved toward stricter medical cannabis regulations to avoid becoming another “wild west” with loose and permissive regulation.

Medical cannabis proponents also aren’t presenting the state’s new medical regime as a massive boon for state coffers or the industry. Medical marijuana has generally proved to be a smaller moneymaker for both business and states that tax it, although those businesses are usually first in line if states move toward recreational marijuana.

Although the legislature may make changes, the ballot initiative calls for medical cards to be issued for $100 for applicants and $20 for those who receive health coverage through Medicare or Medicaid. Grower and dispensary licenses would go for $2,500 — with no explicit cap yet placed on the number of business that could get involved. A 7 percent excise tax would be levied on all sales in addition to the state’s sales tax. While those dollars would go first to the state Department of Health, 75 percent of any surplus funds would go toward education and 25 percent toward drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Organizers also want to make sure Oklahomans benefit: applications for grower or dispensary licenses must show proof of state residency.

Only Washington would have a higher tax on medical cannabis if the sales tax stays in place, as sales tax averages 8.9 percent in the state, according to Oklahoma Watch, a state investigative news site. Proponents have estimated that the new law would raise between $10 million and $30 million above regulatory costs.

A study from the D.C.-based think tank Tax Foundation found that medical use programs in Colorado and Washington grew slowly in their early years and collected more later on. But the foundation cautioned that Washington’s high taxes likely contributed to a robust black market.

Grove said he worries about a system set up that favors large corporations and cronyism in who gets licenses. He said he bases that worry on how the state has dealt with regulating other businesses and hopes to avoid a similar fate for cannabis.

Grove is hopeful, saying that he believes state lawmakers will work with him and other medical cannabis proponents on solid regulations. Along with the fallout from a recent teacher strike and growing dissatisfaction over budget issues, Grove said he believes state lawmakers will realize the state is at an “inflection point.” He doesn’t believe that lawmakers will seek to gut the medical cannabis initiative or ignore its groundswell of support. As he put it, “They’ve realized we’re a force to be reckoned with. They realized there will be a major voter revolt should they go back on this.”

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