NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Unanswered questions remain as Oklahoma medical marijuana rolls out

Oklahoma City — The Oklahoma State Department of Health will begin accepting applications to grow, sell and use marijuana in less than a month, but many questions remain unanswered.

The Board of Health will meet Wednesday to vote on proposed new regulations, which would repeal unpopular rules like banning sales of smokable marijuana, requiring dispensaries to hire pharmacists and limiting the amount of THC, a psychoactive chemical, in marijuana products.

The board had approved the rules on July 10, but the attorney general's office said it likely overstepped its bounds. The language of State Question 788, which legalized medical marijuana in Oklahoma, gave the board the responsibility to make food safety rules for edible products and to issue licenses, not much else. Those tight boundaries could leave some questions unanswered until the Legislature returns in February.

Despite uncertainty, the implementation of SQ 788 still is on schedule at this point. The Health Department posted applications for download on Thursday, and will begin accepting them by Aug. 25. SQ 788 gives the department two weeks to process most applications, meaning patients could be qualified to use marijuana by early September.

It remains to be seen whether physicians will be ready to recommend medical marijuana this month, however. The Health Department's proposed regulations give the Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision the right to require doctors to complete continuing education before prescribing medical marijuana. The board overseeing osteopathic physicians has the same power.

If doctors aren't trained and ready to issue recommendations in August, patients won't be able to move forward with the application process.

Lyle Kelsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision, said the board still has questions about how exactly to regulate medical marijuana, but he expects it will work something like the current system for opioids.

The regulations require doctors to establish a relationship with patients seeking medical marijuana, but not to see them annually. If the board gets complaints about doctors handing out medical marijuana recommendations too liberally, investigators can pull records to determine whether the doctors saw patients regularly and performed a full examination, Kelsey said.

“If the records show that they're seeing (the patients) on a regular basis ... then you can ascertain there's a doctor-patient relationship,” he said.

Deborah Bruce, executive director of the Oklahoma State Board of Osteopathic Examiners, said the board will discuss whether to require continuing education classes on marijuana when it meets in September. If it does elect to require classes, osteopathic physicians likely would have to complete them in other states or online, until Oklahoma develops its own curriculum, she said.

Bruce couldn't offer any guidance for osteopathic physicians whose patients ask them about marijuana between now and the September board meeting.

“Until we know what the Health Department wants, we're reluctant to do anything,” she said. “We're concerned that when the Legislature comes back in February, everything will have to be redone.”

Even if doctors are ready to recommend marijuana in the next few weeks, it's unlikely patients will have anything to buy for a while. It still isn't clear how growers will get legal seeds, because the law requires all plants to have their origins in Oklahoma. And any marijuana grown here now got its start in the black market.

A proposed bill authored by a marijuana trade group would allow seed importation from other states for the first few months of the legal market, but that would require legislative action. Gov. Mary Fallin initially planned to call a special session, but later backed down, despite calls from a marijuana trade group to bring lawmakers back. A legislative joint commission met July 25 and will meet again Wednesday, but can only make recommendations until the full House and Senate return.

If the Legislature didn't take action until it returned in February, legal growers likely wouldn't have their first harvest until at least June.

It also isn't clear where they will be able to sell their product when they do. The new rules forbid outdoor advertising of marijuana sales within 1,000 feet of a church, school or playground, possibly creating difficulties in some communities. That's the same distance the state requires for tattoo parlors and adult novelty stores.

That rule could cover signs for marijuana businesses, said Tony Sellars, spokesman for the Health Department. Applicants will have to provide a map showing that their proposed location is at least 1,000 feet from a school or other restricted place, he said.

Representatives from Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County said they don't anticipate a role in deciding where marijuana businesses can set up, because neither entity has an ordinance related to those types of businesses.

Tyler Gammon Jr., planning director for Oklahoma County, said his department won't be involved unless the county commission passes an ordinance on marijuana businesses.

“We have not been told that we need to get involved with that,” he said.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›