Residents in Deep Red Oklahoma Just Voted to Legalize Medical Marijuana

The question now: Will the governor and her allies try to override the will of the voters?


Crowds gather inside of the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma during the teacher walkout in April. Photo credit: CrowdSpark/Newscom

Voters in Oklahoma passed one of the country's broadest medical marijuana ballot measures on Tuesday. But late Tuesday night, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin released a statement suggesting she will work with legislators and state officials to roll back some of the initiative's provisions.

State Question 788 (S.Q. 788), which makes Oklahoma the 30th state to legalize medical use of marijuana, has faced staunch opposition since qualifying for the ballot in June 2017. Law enforcement groups and other opponents spent "roughly half a million dollars [on] television ads seeking to undermine support for medical marijuana," Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell reports.

"This state question creates a special class of citizen out of those who obtain a medical marijuana license," Pawnee County Sheriff Mike Waters told Tulsa's ABC affiliate last month. "It does not make sense that an 18-year-old can go to a veterinarian, say he gets headaches, and then be given a two-year license to carry enough marijuana for 85 joints."

But the efforts of anti-cannabis groups failed to deter voters, who approved S.Q. 788 on Tuesday by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent. As a result, Oklahoma has "one of the broadest medical marijuana measures to be adopted by any state," says Mason Tvert, communications director at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

Despite promising to "respect the will of the voters in any question placed before them to determine the direction of our state," Fallin's election-night statement hints that the victory could be short-lived. "As I mentioned in previous public comments, I believe, as well as many Oklahomans, this new law is written so loosely that it opens the door for basically recreational marijuana," Fallin's statement says. "I will be discussing with legislative leaders and state agencies our options going forward on how best to proceed with adding a medical and proper regulatory framework to make sure marijuana use is truly for valid medical illnesses."

According to MPP's Tvert, Fallin isn't blowing smoke. "Because it is an initiated statute and not a constitutional amendment," Tvert explains in an email, "lawmakers and regulators will have a lot more flexibility during the implementation process. Making changes or repealing the statute will only require a simple majority in the Legislature, whereas changing or repealing a constitutional amendment would have required approval from the voters in addition to majorities in both legislative chambers."

Under S.Q. 788, license applicants are not limited by a list of disorders, and they need only a recommendation from "an Oklahoma Board certified physician," according to the referendum language (that would seem to preclude veterinarians, contrary to Sheriff Mike Waters' claim). The possession and growing allowances are generous. A person with a medical marijuana license can legally possess up to three ounces "on their person" and grow up to six mature and six immature plants at home, where they can possess up to eight ounces of buds as well as an ounce of concentrate and 72 ounces of edibles. The initiative states that Oklahoma must recognize medical marijuana licenses granted by other states, and it allows cities and counties within Oklahoma to pass local ordinances raising the possession and cultivation limits above those established in the state law.

S.Q. 788 is a little more restrictive when it comes to commercial licenses. Growers, processors, and retailers cannot sell company ownership stakes in excess of 25 percent to non-Oklahoma residents, and a felony criminal history is grounds for rejecting an application. The entire text of the initiative can be read here.

While some of these provisions are likely to be rolled back by Fallin and her allies in the legislature, MPP's Tvert doesn't see them scrapping the law altogether. "It would be a huge political mistake for them to openly defy the voters by repealing the law or implementing it in a way that clearly defies voters' intent," he says. "Legislators should look to other states that have adopted similarly expansive laws for lessons on implementation. The Legislature should establish a system that best reflects the intent of the voters, and the voters clearly intended to establish a system that provides safe, legal, and reliable access to medical marijuana for patients who would benefit from it."