NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Oklahoma follows most states in Rx pot, with some unique aspects

Ever since Oklahoma voters legalized medical marijuana in June, doctors and law enforcement officials have warned of a coming increase in crime, business leaders have predicted mass confusion for employers and other opponents have cautioned the state is journeying into the unknown.

In reality, Oklahoma is following 29 other states that have already legalized medical marijuana, many of which faced the same types of challenges — both in politics and policy — that Oklahoma is currently working its way through.

But while Oklahoma may not be a trailblazer when it comes to legalizing medical marijuana, the state is unique in the speed with which the new program is being implemented, which even some supporters claim has created problems.

“I think Oklahoma is the quickest state I can think of for medical marijuana dispensaries to be open after the vote, at least right now,” said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies with the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit focused on cannabis policy reform.

Some of the architects of State Question 788 admit the short timeline was an intentional attempt to make lawmakers move quickly, leaving little time for major overhauls.

SQ 788 gave the Oklahoma State Health Department just one month to being processing applications for medical marijuana licenses, which it started to do last week.

Depending on a variety of factors related to opening a business and growing marijuana, medical cannabis could become available for purchase some time over the next several months, which would be one of the fastest roll outs in the nation.

Many states, including Maryland and Massachusetts, took at least two years to implement medical marijuana programs following legislative approval.

North Dakota and Arkansas are still waiting for medical marijuana licenses to be granted more than two years after voters supported legalization.

Oklahoma's implementation has had its speed bumps, including the adoption of rules by the state Board of Health that drew immediate backlash and a recommendation from the attorney general that some of the rules be rewritten.

State lawmakers began holding bipartisan meetings in response to the controversy surrounding the original Board of Health rules, but they are unable to enact any laws without meeting in an official session.

Before the vote on SQ 788, Gov. Mary Fallin, who was opposed to the measure, said its passage would require a special session of the state Legislature because many key details were not covered in the ballot language.

After SQ 788 was approved by voters, Fallin said a special session wasn't necessary.

"The issue is very complicated, and it seems we're discovering almost daily new issues on how to best implement medical marijuana, from safety to how federal regulations affect medical marijuana banking transactions and the financing and insuring of commercial property being used for marijuana growing or dispensary purposes," Fallin said in a statement last week, adding that calling a special session now would be "premature.”

In other states, the involvement of lawmakers has often been controversial because it was viewed as an effort to undermine medical marijuana laws.

However, proponents of medical marijuana in Oklahoma have encouraged state lawmakers to get involved.

“What's unique in Oklahoma is proponents are actually encouraging the Legislature to come back and make changes and that is an unusual situation from what we've seen in other states,” O'Keefe said.

SQ 788 had few limitations or regulations on the number of licenses for patients, dispensaries and growers, which has some medical marijuana proponents urging the state Legislature gather for a special session.

"The race to become a grower here is highly competitive and unlike any other market we have ever seen," said Bud Scott, executive director of New Health Solutions Oklahoma, a pro-medical marijuana organization advocating for Legislature-imposed restrictions on grower licenses.

Within a few days of applications being accepted, nearly 400 grower license applications had been submitted to the state.

"We will literally have more product out there on the market than could possibly be consumed," Scott said about the pace of grower licenses. "Oklahoma is guaranteed to have more cultivators growing unlimited amounts than either Washington or Oregon, both states with twice the population of Oklahoma and are full blown recreational markets."

Scott said that level of production in Oklahoma would result in a large marijuana black market.

Lawmakers also are hearing from health officials who continue to claim medical marijuana will be harmful to the state. The bipartisan committee most recently met on Wednesday and heard from some health officials who suggested the location of dispensaries would increase crime rates.

However, multiple studies conducted in recent years have indicated that won't be the case.

In 2014, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas concluded that crime rates have not increased in areas where medical marijuana dispensaries opened. In fact, the study suggested that some crime may have gone down.

Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›