If approved, SQ788 would legalize medical marijuana in Oklahoma and would not restrict use to any certain conditions.
Editor's note: This is the second installment in a month-long series of articles regarding Oklahoma, Ottawa County, and Miami's drug issues. Look for the next installment in the series in next Tuesday’s MNR. Read the first article, "Oklahoma addictions - OBN numbers tell the shocking story" here.
MIAMI – Oklahomans will cast their votes June 26 on State Question 788 for the legalization of the licensed use, sale, and growth of marijuana in Oklahoma for medicinal purposes. A yes vote approves the amendment proposal and a no vote goes against approval.
If approved, SQ788 would legalize medical marijuana in Oklahoma and would not restrict use to any certain conditions. The initiative was placed on the ballot after Oklahomans for Health led a signature petition drive advocating for the amendment to state law.
Supporters argue that legalizing medical marijuana use will help patients in need, will prevent the purchasing of marijuana illegally to treat illness, allow for proper restrictions and regulations, and will prevent wasting taxpayer dollars on enforcement of prohibition and that any person—with the guidance of a doctor—should have the individual freedom to use marijuana for medical purposes.
Opponents argue that SQ788 does not provide enough restrictions and would, in effect, amount to recreational marijuana legalization.
“My guess is the proponents of the state question have their eye on recreational legalization eventually, so medical legalization is the first step towards recreational legalization like we’ve seen in a handful of other states,” Ottawa County District Attorney Kenny Wright said. “But if we just look at the state question we have before us now, it is written based on the proponents’ experiences in other states.”
Wright said such advocacy efforts have worked with 28 other states with some form of marijuana legalization approved.
A license would be required for possession for medicinal purposes and must be approved by an Oklahoma Board Certified Physician to be issued to Oklahoma residents 18 years and older by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Special exemptions would be granted to applicants under the age of 18 that must be signed by two physicians and a parent or legal guardian.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health would also issue seller, growing, packaging, transportation and research and caregiver licenses.
The current funding situation in Oklahoma makes the proposal for the department to take on licensing infrastructure daunting, although ideally at some point in time the administrative operation could become self-funded, according to Wright.
“The Health Department doesn’t want anything to do with this,” Wright said.
Individuals and retail businesses to be licensed to sell marijuana must meet minimal requirements and a state tax of seven percent would be imposed on medical marijuana sales. Punishment for unlicensed possession is not to exceed a fine of $400.
“This essentially decriminalizes possession, it’s like a civil fine,” Wright said.
The writers of the SQ788 have kept the language of the proposal as intentionally wide open as possible in order not to limit the conditions, illnesses or diseases that marijuana can be prescribed for, or to monitor prescribing physicians, according to Wright.
“What we see when medical legalization passes somewhere it still has to be implemented by the legislature. So, if a state question passes, then it’s up to the legislature to build a framework of how everything works from an administrative standpoint, from a licensing standpoint, from a taxation standpoint, and how that’s handled really controls the effectiveness of the legalization,” he said.
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (OBN) says the legalization of marijuana movement in the U.S. has dramatically declined locally-grown and Mexican marijuana found in the state. Marijuana is now trafficked here from states with legalization, mainly California and Colorado with much higher levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
In 2016 the OBN and state law enforcement seized 1,491 pounds of marijuana with 6,561 crime lab submittals, according to data compiled in the OBN’s yearly Oklahoma Drug Threat Assessment.
“At OBN we will never tell you to vote for or against the state question, we can’t do that, but what we do feel very passionate about is to try to educate people about what we know, and what we’ve seen, and the research we’ve done,” OBN Director John Scully said in a Public Drug Forum last week in Miami. “We encourage you to vote, but we also encourage you to know exactly what you’re voting for.”
If SQ788 passes, medical marijuana license cards would be issued costing $100 for applicants and $20 for Medicaid patients and licenses will be good for a year. The license would give cardholders the right to carry up to 3 ounces of marijuana on their person and possess 8 ounces at their residence, possess 6 mature plants and 6 seedling plants, one ounce of concentrated marijuana, and 72 ounces of medical marijuana.
“A typical marijuana joint weighs a gram, so three ounces per person is about 85 joints,” Scully said. “ In their house, they’ll be able to possess eight ounces that’s about 226 joints. Six mature marijuana plants produce about a pound of marijuana, so the grand total is estimated at over 3,000 joints.”
Scully encouraged reading reports such as the Rocky Mountain High Report from Colorado regarding the impact of legalization on other states.
Wright believes the proponents of medical marijuana set the amount of possession higher with an eye on full-blown recreational legalization in the future.
“That’s a lot,” Wright said.
The statute does not restrict the amount of marijuana a commercial grower can grow. The statute also prohibits schools, landlords, and employers from refusing enrollment, lease, or employment based on medical marijuana license status.
“There’s still language in there, if a guy was stoned, driving a bus, you could still fire him,” Wright said. “We deal with that all the time with DUI drug cases anyway.”
SQ788 would allow greater accessibility and acceptance of marijuana use in Oklahoma. The statute prohibits dispensaries from establishing a business within 1,000 feet of any school and prohibits municipalities rezoning efforts to prevent the opening of a dispensary.
“This isn’t the issue in and of itself, the challenge is by legalizing it you’re going to increase access. Anytime you have increased access, you’re going to tend to have increased use. Anecdotally, going off 20 plus years of experience working with these people, where we have problems, people don’t just tend to smoke marijuana and be done. They’re smoking marijuana, drinking mixed drinks, having a beer, and it’s the combined effect of those two things that actually gets dangerous on the road,” Wright said,
Edibles laced with marijuana containing higher concentrations of THC is another issue for Wright.
“We’ve got a pending case of child neglect based on that, on a guy that had edibles in his dresser drawer where his kids could get right at them,” he said. “That’s really concerning and that seems to be one of the more common routes these days is the edible marijuana, whether it’s candies or cookies or whatever. I think it’s inevitable if this passes we’re going to have more kids using marijuana as it becomes more normalized.”
Wright said from his viewpoint and experience it’s hard to differentiate marijuana from alcohol when considering legalization.
“There’s pros and cons when you compare the two substances. Honestly, I’d rather live next door to a guy smoking a quarter ounce of weed every day, than a guy drinking a fifth of Wild Turkey every day,” Wright said. “If it’s done right, it should be a revenue positive enterprise for the state. There are pluses and minuses even with the medical legalization. Obviously, there seems to be some research, although it’s limited, there are a number of legitimate uses for marijuana from a medical standpoint. I would hate to think that there’s somebody out there that needs it and can’t get it, and it could give them some relief from a chronic problem that they’re dealing with.”
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (OBN) provides the following fact about medical marijuana saying marijuana is not recognized in the medical community as legitimate medicine - The Federal Drug Administration has not approved marijuana as a safe and effective drug to treat medical conditions.
The DEA continues to classify marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, which indicates there is no accepted use and a high potential for abuse.
According to OBN and DEA research, marijuana is linked to negative health outcomes and leads to problem use, dependence and addiction in 30 percent of users.
Marijuana is still a controlled substance making major research by pharmaceutical companies difficult to accomplish through medical drug trials to validate or deny claims of medicinal properties.
“So, we don’t really know, what we see is a lot of anecdotal evidence of people saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this problem, I used it and it helped me.’” Wright said.
Impact of legalization
According to the District Attorney, most drug dealers in northeast Oklahoma don’t exclusively sell marijuana, but also sell other harder drugs such as illegal prescription opioids and meth.
“My concern about marijuana is you have to go to a drug dealer to get it, there are very few exclusive marijuana dealers, we’ve run into a handful but they’re the exception, most everybody that sells weed also sells meth or pills or at least Xanex or Adderall, so then you’re exposing people to real drug dealers and pretty dangerous drugs,” Wright said.
He said his Drug Task Force does not generally pursue smaller marijuana crimes focusing on larger scale crimes.
“It’s manageable, there’s no end of the world scenario here,” Wright said. “There’s no absolutes and there’s no super clean thing here, because even in the states where you’ve got legalization, there’s still a black market, as long as there’s taxation, there’s’ still going be a black market."
If passed with legislative and legal challenges Wright said it will still be three to four years before legalization is implemented in the state.
"So it will be a long time before we really know the answers," he said. "I haven’t decided myself whether the pros outweigh the cons.”
Wright said his office files a low number of marijuana possession cases, and he said it’s hard to tell how much medical marijuana legalization would impact the area.
“My concern is that if it does pass, the legislature can implement it in a way that’s as responsible as possible with an eye towards public safety,” Wright said. “If it passes, there’s going to be more work for law enforcement, more work for prosecutors, and more work for public defenders.”
Ottawa County Sheriff Jeremy Floyd also weighed in on the topic, “As we approach the election on June 26 in regards State Question 788, I find it very important for the general public to know exactly what this bill details. SQ788 is a bill that the people will be voting on in regards to legalizing medical marijuana. Like many states, this is the first step before we endorse recreational marijuana. States that have passed medical or recreational marijuana have experienced troubling aftermath effects.
“The main issue I have with SQ788 is the quantity someone can possess on the person or even in the household is very alarming, especially the edible amounts that children could ultimately eat without knowing. Some will argue that marijuana can cure or even help deal with certain diseases or illnesses but there is pharmacy cannabis oil in place right now that can be used to treat these issues. Regardless, I’m not an advocate of legalizing marijuana on any level. The people really need to educate themselves before they go to the polls; this state question is way more than the use of marijuana.”
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.