Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said last week that he’d seek changes to the state’s medical marijuana program, which leads the nation in the number of dispensaries among all states with regulated cannabis sales. Stitt made his comments following the failure of a ballot measure to legalize adult-use marijuana in Oklahoma that was rejected by 61% of voters in a special election on March 7.
Voters in Oklahoma legalized medical marijuana with the passage of State Question 788 in 2018, making it the 30th state in the nation to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis. With low barriers to entry including license fees for cannabis businesses of only $2,500, a fraction of the amount charged by most states, and no limit on the number of cannabis dispensaries, Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry quickly grew to become what’s arguably the most robust in the nation. The ballot measure also had few restrictions to qualify for a medical marijuana card, and the number of registered patients now equals nearly 10% of the state’s population. As of November 2022, Oklahoma had more than 2,300 medical marijuana dispensaries, a figure that eclipses the number of gas stations in the state, according to a report from local media.
Medical Marijuana Backlash
But many residents of Oklahoma believe that the fast pace of growth of the medical marijuana industry has outpaced the state’s ability to regulate it. Additionally, the lack of oversight has led to the development of a lucrative illicit industry of cannabis growers who ship their crops to jurisdictions that haven’t yet ended cannabis prohibition.
“There’s enough marijuana, I’ve been told, grown in Oklahoma to supply the entire United States. That’s not what this was supposed to be,” Stitt said last week. “This was supposed to be about medical use in the state of Oklahoma, and it’s gotten way out of control.”
State lawmakers responded last year by passing a bill that put a two-year moratorium on the issuing of new licenses for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and retailers. The state has also put new regulations in place, including a requirement for a seed-to-sale tracking system to monitor the production and movement of cannabis throughout the state. Other new rules include a requirement for cannabis producers to submit water and electricity usage data to state regulators in an attempt to identify businesses that are producing more cannabis than they’re reporting.
Stitt says that the backlash against Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry was largely responsible for the failure of State Question 820, an initiative that would’ve legalized adult-use cannabis. After being denied a slot on the ballot for the November general election by procedural delays and a state Supreme Court ruling, Stitt announced in October that a special election to decide State Question 820 would be held on March 7.
“As I was traveling the state, I knew Oklahomans didn’t want it,” Stitt said. “They were so tired of a dispensary on every single corner.”
State Question 820 was opposed by law enforcement organizations and many of the state’s Republican leaders, including Stitt. Representatives of the state’s agricultural industry and many residents of the state’s rural areas also expressed opposition to the ballot measure to legalize adult-use cannabis in Oklahoma.
“We’ve seen the negative impact the rapid growth of the unregulated medical marijuana industry has had on Oklahoma agriculture and the rural communities,” said Scott Blubaugh, president of American Farmers and Ranchers. “We’ve seen a rise in farming challenges, and we’ve seen a strain on our rural electric and our rural water utilities.”
Voters Reject State Question 820
State Question 820 failed at the polls in last week’s special election, with 61% of the electorate voting against the measure. The governor attributed the loss to the state of Oklahoma’s existing medical marijuana industry.
“I think Oklahomans had a lot of fatigue around marijuana,” Stitt said. “They clearly do not want recreational marijuana.”
With the fate of SQ 820 now sealed, Stitt and state lawmakers have said that they’ll work to tighten control over Oklahoma’s medical marijuana program. But he acknowledged that they must be careful not to infringe on the will of voters who passed the medical marijuana legalization measure.
“Oklahomans have a big heart: that if it’s [cannabis] going to help someone medically, we want that to happen,” Stitt said. “But we don’t believe everyone with a hangnail should be able to get a medical card.”
So far, dozens of cannabis-related bills have been introduced for the 2023 legislative session, including several bills designed to tighten regulations on the state’s medical marijuana industry. Among them is SB 116, which prohibits commercial medical marijuana growers from being located within 1,000 feet of a place of worship. SB 133 excludes marijuana production from agriculture sales tax exemptions, likely raising the tax liability for cannabis cultivators. Another bill, SB 801, rolls back restrictions on local control of cannabis businesses by allowing municipalities to modify their planning or zoning procedures to forbid medical cannabis businesses to locate in certain areas.
The bills will be considered during the 2023 legislative session that ends on May 26.