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OKLAHOMA CITY— As Oklahomans prepare to vote on legalizing recreational marijuana, supporters say it’s a clear decision to support local businesses and promote social justice reform, while detractors say it’s a weedier situation.
Oklahomans will vote on State Question 820 on March 7. If it passes, Oklahoma will become the 22nd state to legalize recreational marijuana. The proposal would permit individuals aged 21 and older to buy marijuana products for recreational use from licensed vendors. SQ 820 also allows for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, six mature plants and six seedlings.
Oklahoma voters legalized medicinal marijuana in 2018 under a similar statewide vote. The state saw a “green rush” as more than 7,000 grow operations and nearly 2,600 dispensaries for medicinal marijuana were opened — more dispensaries than Colorado and California combined.
Blake Cantrell, 37, said he remembers plotting out his business strategy for a chain of medical marijuana dispensaries in 2018 despite his apprehension about telling his family his plans.
“This was something I got in trouble for consuming throughout my high school experience,” Cantrell said. “I actually waited six months to tell them that I was opening a dispensary. But for me, it represented a great business opportunity and thankfully they saw it that way as well.”
Advocates for the passage of SQ 820 say the measure will help business owners like Cantrell by increasing their customer base and directing money from recreational sales to local government agencies to increase industry regulations and patrol.
But critics of SQ 820, including Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, say the marijuana industry has increased drug addiction rates and brought “bad actors” into the state. They argue that children will be at the most risk if any further expansion of marijuana is passed, citing mental health risks among their concerns.
The measure includes a licensing process for recreational dispensaries, commercial growers, processors and transporters. Within 90 days of the law’s implementation, the state would create regulations for product preparation and labeling.
Oklahoma would impose a 15 percent excise tax on each recreational sale, more than double the 7 percent tax medical users currently pay. The surplus revenue would be directed toward student services, drug addiction treatment programs, courts, local government and the state’s general revenue fund.
Private landowners and businesses would be allowed to prohibit or regulate the use of marijuana on their property or during the course of employment.
The ballot measure also creates a pathway for courts to expunge or dismiss certain prior marijuana-related convictions. It also prohibits prosecutors from revoking bail, parole or probation because of marijuana use.
SQ 820 would not change current medical marijuana laws and regulations.
Marijuana buds on display inside the Apoothecary Farms in Oklahoma City. Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA Today Network
Supporters of the state question claim that if it is passed, Oklahoma could generate $821 million in tax revenue over four years from combined recreational and medical marijuana sales, according to an economic impact and tax analysis conducted by law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP.
The report used data from Oklahoma and other states with legalized recreational marijuana to forecast the potential revenue for the state. The group Yes on 820, a ballot initiative seeking to legalize recreational marijuana for adults in Oklahoma, commissioned the analysis.
According to the report, revenue from marijuana taxes is anticipated to reach its highest point in 2027, with more than $97 million generated from recreational sales and $69 million from the medical market. However, revenue is predicted to stabilize beyond 2027 as the market adapts to a larger customer base and reduced prices.
The report’s lead author, Andrew Livingston, noted that the analysis revealed a significant but unreported market for recreational use. Nearly 10 percent of Oklahomans already hold medical marijuana cards.
Sales of medical marijuana reached their highest point in April 2021, according to data from the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. The industry broke records that year, generating nearly $149 million in tax revenue from state and local sales taxes, as well as the state’s marijuana excise tax. Tax revenues from marijuana retail sales significantly decreased in January 2023, falling nearly 33 percent compared to their peak levels.
It’s the potential increase in customer base and a two-year moratorium on new marijuana distribution licenses that has Cantrell pushing for the passage of SQ 820.
Cantrell, who operates three dispensaries and a wholesale warehouse in the Oklahoma City area, said while medicinal marijuana sales skyrocketed shortly after legalization in 2018, the market quickly became oversaturated due to the low cost of licenses and the initial excitement of a new industry.
“Things are pretty tight right now,” Cantrell said. “We are hanging in there but across the industry in Oklahoma it’s rough going for the operators who are doing things the right way. We need an expansion of the customer base; otherwise current operators are going to have a difficult time.”
Michelle Tilley, the director for the Yes on SQ 820 campaign, said another component of the proposal is that it will require resentencing, reversing, modifying and expunging certain prior marijuana-related convictions.
“That’s going to be life changing for a lot of people,” Tilley said. “We’ve heard from people who 20 years later are still carrying around these records and they have trouble getting jobs or taking out loans or renting a place to live.”
In 2018, Oklahoma voters approved SQ 788, which legalized the sale and use of medical marijuana in the state.
It costs $2,500 to obtain a seller’s license in Oklahoma — in contrast to neighboring Arkansas, where it can exceed $100,000. There were also no restrictions on the number of dispensaries that can sell marijuana, the number of cannabis farms or the amount of production allowed per farm.
Darrel Williams grew up in Okmulgee, a city of less than 12,000 people south of Tulsa. He felt like marijuana just appeared overnight. Now the city has nearly a dozen dispensaries, including a 24-hour self-automated dispensary that opened late last year.
“We used to joke that there was a church on every corner,” Williams said. “Now there’s weed on every corner.”
Tilley said she believes the drug has always been popular in Oklahoma and that people are just being more open about it now.
“People that I grew up with and went to church with were suddenly talking about it,” Tilley said. “I think a lot of skeptics probably got their medical cards themselves and have experienced the benefits of it. That stigma has just continued to melt away.”
Stitt said during his first news briefing of the 2023 legislative session that he is opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana because it remains illegal federally.
“There shouldn’t be a patchwork of states doing different things,” Stitt said. “We need to let the feds tell us if it’s legal or illegal, we shouldn’t let the states tell us that.”
Stitt, who was elected to a second term in November, also spoke about the flux of “foreign nationals” buying up Oklahoma farm land to operate marijuana growing operations. To obtain a grower’s license, Oklahoma law requires that at least 75 percent of the ownership of a commercial grower operation be owned by Oklahoma residents.
“We’ve made it illegal to purchase land if you’re a Chinese foreign national; a foreign national is not allowed to own agricultural or farmland,” Stitt said in an interview on the Sara Carter Show podcast in September. “But we’re seeing them move in through straw buyers, so that’s what we’re trying to attack now.”
In November, a man was arrested for killing four Chinese nationals at an illegal Oklahoma marijuana farm after demanding employees give him $300,000 as a return for his “investment” in the illegal operation, prosecutors said.
Newly elected Oklahoma Attorney General Getner Drummond told The Oklahoman that he would be personally voting no on SQ 820 due to the threat of organized crime.
“One of the biggest current threats to public safety is the presence of Chinese nationals and other elements of organized crime in our medical marijuana industry,” Drummond said. “I believe it would be a grave mistake to give these criminals a larger market to serve.”
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating announced last month that he would be leading a campaign against SQ 820.
“We simply must protect our children,” Keating said, adding that the measure includes a clause that prohibits the courts from considering marijuana use in child custody and visitation cases.
“This means that a single mom cannot be supported by the courts when asking a noncustodial parent to abstain from pot during a visitation weekend,” Keating wrote in a column for Tulsa World. “It is structured in such a way that children are not protected unless they are already harmed.”
The “Protect Our Kids: No 820” campaign says proponents of the measure are lying to the public when they say the legalization of recreational marijuana will “make communities safer.”
But proponents for SQ 820 say this talk is just reefer madness.
“It’s really archaic language,” Cantrell said. “They are reaching in their arguments and reasoning and I think that’s telling that they really don’t have a leg to stand on in opposition to it.”
The opposing group has teamed up with a coalition of law enforcement officials from around the state to share why they believe an increase in marijuana availability would lead to more crime, worse mental health and put children at risk.
“Oklahoma will be hurt by increased access to marijuana,” said Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley, a member of the coalition. “Our mental health professionals confirm that the use of today’s high THC product leads to psychoses and schizophrenia, two diagnoses that are directly tied to homelessness.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who use marijuana at an earlier age or more frequently — meaning daily or nearly daily — are more likely to develop temporary psychosis and long-lasting mental disorders, such as schizophrenia. In California, lawmakers have weighed whether to require labels on cannabis products that warn of health risks.
Adam Kemp is a Communities Reporter for the PBS NewsHour based in Oklahoma.
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