With the spread of cannabis east of the Rockies and into the most conservative parts of America, legislators have worked to cripple the intent of these laws, limit the industry to millionaires and billionaires, and restrict access so much that most patients have largely remained criminals even in legal medical marijuana states. Usually, the people who fight the lawmakers on crippling regulations in these states lose and the legislators mostly always win.
But when medical marijuana finally made its way to Oklahoma, the law fought the people, and the people won.
If you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed this small conservative state passing and enacting one of the best medical cannabis laws in the country; shortly after its passage citizens were able to see doctors and become patients, grow up to six plants at home, get a production, processor or dispenser license for as little as $2,500 and a lease agreement, and consume their medical cannabis in public wherever tobacco is consumed.
After covering cannabis issues nationwide, I was shocked by what I saw on a recent visit to Tulsa. Legal Washington State doesn’t have home cultivation rights. Legal Oregon and Colorado are currently fighting for the right to consume socially. Legal California has added so many layers of bureaucracy to get into the legal market that most producers never moved onto it.
Did I mention Oklahoma has reciprocity? This was not lost on me when I lit up and smoked a joint in a cigarette-friendly Tulsa bar thanks to my California physician recommending it for my Crohn’s Disease. As my new Sooner State friends and I socialized around a pool table, I learned that this victory in Oklahoma had little to do with money and everything to do with the hard work and dedication of the on-the-ground activists who fought for the law.
The Long Journey to the Ballot
Oklahomans for Health (OFH) sponsored the petition to bring State Question 788, Oklahoma’s medical cannabis law, to the 2016 presidential election ballot. Thanks to the obstruction of then-attorney general Scott Pruitt, the initiative was not certified or titled by the state appropriately or on time, leading to a lengthy court battle that kept it off the ballot.
On March 27, 2017, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oklahomans for Health, but they had already lost their shot at being on a high voter-turnout presidential ticket. In January 2018, Governor Mary Fallin scheduled the SQ 788 vote to what was expected to be the lowest possible turnout ticket; the June 2018 midterm primary election.
The primary election on June 26, 2018 had one of the highest voter turnouts in Oklahoma state history, exceeding the turnouts on both the 2016 presidential primary and the 2014 gubernatorial election. Despite a flood of money that came from big corporations to oppose the bill, just over $1 million to proponents’ measly $30,000, SQ 788 earned 507,582 thousand votes, 57%, and passed into law.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health, tasked with implementing SQ 788, released a draft of proposed rules on July 8, 2018 that would have, essentially, crippled the intent of the law. Under the rules all smokable cannabis would be banned, pharmacists would be required to be present in dispensaries as part of the approval process and dispensaries would be limited to just 50. It would force all women of childbearing age to obtain a pregnancy test before being granted safe access.
“The Oklahoma State Department of Health has enacted law that undermines one of the most participated-in elections in state history and silences the voice of Oklahomans across this state,” wrote state representative Jason Lowe in a press release in July. “Today’s decision is an affront to democracy and an insult to the law-abiding citizens that showed up to vote for this initiative.”
Proponents sued the governor and state officials saying they were crippling the intent of the legislation, and Gov. Fallin was forced to sign into law rules that upheld the will of the voters-- removing these added provisions-- on August 6, 2018.
Getting Out the Vote
Since 2015, an all patient and volunteer force of over 800 Oklahomans in over 50 of the states 77 counties registered people to vote and passed out educational literature. They raised money through car washes, or pulled from their own limited funds. A new group, Green the Vote, was formed to support the petitions being run by Oklahomans for Health.
Isaac Caviness, former president of Green the Vote and owner of Tulsa’s HempRx low-THC cannabis dispensary, has two cots set up in the back of his store. During the petition drive, he converted it into a 24-hour petition signing and voter registration hub and purchased the cots so volunteers could take breaks to rest. Green the Vote, as well as Oklahomans for Health, were able to register tens of thousands of Oklahomans to vote for SQ 788, some for the very first time. Their all-volunteer efforts played an essential role in the SQ 788 victory.
Today, Caviness’s store, like many other “CBD dispensaries” around the state, is making preparations to become a whole plant dispensary and is already selling CBD flower and other medical cannabis goods under 1% THC by weight.
This summer, Green the Vote almost put two additional state questions before voters in the November election, which would have amended the medical program and made Oklahoma an adult-use legalization state. They came close, but just around 7,000 signatures shy of the 124,000 signature requirement to qualify this November.
SQ 797 would have legalized marijuana in Oklahoma for adult use and added a tax that would largely fund public education. SQ 796 would have overrode SQ 788 but made it more difficult for the legislature to make changes to the law, capped license fees and added a list of qualifying conditions for medical. Caviness believes that a constitutional amendment for adult use in 2020 is necessary to protect the over 1,500 licenses that have already been issued since the summer.
“I believe that is the best route to go to protect all of these commercial businesses that are blooming right now, but it would take all of these commercial businesses to step up and to fund a petition so we can truly hire experts to come in here and get it done and not be having to do it off of the backs of patients and volunteers here in Oklahoma,” he said. “We would be very successful with that and it would be the sledgehammer we need to keep the lawmakers from running amok with the regulations.”
The Trail Ahead
While most of Oklahoma’s activists aren’t too concerned that the law and safe access will be impeded in the spring when the legislature meets, Dr. Brandon Bailey isn’t as optimistic.
“I think it is gonna cause a lot of problems… we are a very conservative state by nature,” Dr. Bailey says.
Dr. Bailey is 36 years old and is active duty in the Army National Guard, as well as a husband, father, and MMA fighter. He spent the first five months of this year in Northeastern Afghanistan before returning home to the Tulsa area just prior to the vote on SQ 788. He has a full schedule; in the early mornings he spends time with his hospice patients before working in his private clinic, Evolved Health and Wellness in Broken Arrow, from 9 to 5. Afterwards, he goes straight to the hospital to treat his patients there until after midnight. On the weekends he takes care of his military duties. Still, he is seeing and writing over 50 cannabis recommendations a day and traveling to the farthest and most remote parts of the state to make sure all Oklahomans have access. He does free and discounted recommendations for the severely disabled and military veterans.
“My hope is to try and get as many patients into the system now,” he says.
He feels that if he can register a large patient population before the legislature meets, he can show how it has worked for so many conditions and prevent them from further limiting access.
“I think the biggest issue we are going to run into is the new guidelines that will come into play around February, I suspect they will be limiting conditions,” Dr. Bailey said.