Labeling bill tops Oklahoma medical marijuana agenda
Oklahoma City — The Oklahoma Legislature's top two voices on medical marijuana are hoping to quickly pass testing rules this session before moving on to more controversial issues.
Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, who co-chaired a medical marijuana working group that met ahead of the session, said testing and labeling will be the first priority because the state doesn't have a framework for making sure smokable marijuana isn't contaminated.
“We cannot guarantee the safety of the products being sold in Oklahoma, and well, that is obviously not a good thing,” he said.
Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly approved State Question 788 in June to allow for medical marijuana in the state, and pot is being grown and sold. Lawmakers and regulatory agencies still must write rules governing many aspects of the new industry. The legislative session begins Feb. 4.
Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, is the House majority leader and working group co-chair. He said the group has recommended requiring marijuana businesses to test for all cannabinoids and terpenes — two types of chemicals in the plant — and to label their concentrations.
Most states with medical marijuana laws only require testing for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that produces a “high,” and cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical that is being studied for medical uses, Echols said.
The working group wanted to submit those recommendations to the state Board of Health, but the state attorney general's office determined the board could only regulate marijuana edibles, not smokable forms of the drug, Echols said. The Board of Health passed rules regulating edibles in December.
Jed Green, political director of the medical marijuana trade group New Health Solutions Oklahoma, said he hopes lawmakers will focus on testing for contaminants that could threaten public health, like heavy metals and pesticides. It might not be possible to list all of the substances in marijuana on labels for small products, he said, and the medical implications aren't clear for most chemicals.
“There are literally hundreds of terpenes,” he said.
'Unity bill' may need work
The next step after setting testing rules likely will be to pass parts of a 300-page “unity bill” the medical marijuana supporters proposed to regulate the market. The unity bill would offer a basic framework to implement State Question 788 as written before lawmakers consider changes to it, McCortney said. The changes could be more contentious, because of the broad variety of viewpoints about what should be done, he said.
“Personally, I would love for us to come in the first week of session and pass the unity bill so we can put it on the governor's desk and have the rest of the session to make changes,” he said. “There's a lot of things that (State Question) 788 didn't discuss that we're not going to include in the unity bill, but where there's broad consensus that something needs to be done.”
New Health participated in writing the unity bill, but some parts will have to be scrapped, Green said. For example, the bill would have limited the number of business licenses that would be issued and restricted the size of growers' operations, but it wouldn't be fair to impose those conditions retroactively on existing businesses, he said.
Other priorities could include funding for the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to hire more inspectors, setting up a seed-to-sale tracking system and clarifying employers' responsibilities if workers who use medical marijuana are injured on the job, Echols said.
During the interim meetings, Echols said he would offer a bill directing state law enforcement officers not to enforce the federal prohibition on possessing guns and marijuana. Federal agents could still enforce that law themselves, though they haven't in other states that legalized medical marijuana.
“That's protection for state law enforcement too, because they don't want to confiscate guns,” Echols said.
The biggest issue for pro-marijuana interests may be convincing lawmakers to treat cannabis not as a dangerous narcotic, but as a potential commodity crop, Green said. The Legislature will have a significant number of new members, and it's not clear how the majority feel about medical marijuana, he said.
“What we're hoping is they see the writing on the wall, they see what we've done,” he said. “It's astounding, just as these new businesses are getting off the ground, how many jobs they're creating.”