In a little over a week, Oklahoma voters will head to the polls to decide another contentious state question involving the decriminalization of drug use. While previous state questions reduced the penalties for possession, among other things, the current question facing the electorate will decide the legality of medical marijuana.
While the opposition to the medical use of marijuana — Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — has moved beyond the “Reefer Madness” hysteria that permeated the years preceding the Great Depression and has become more widely accepted and scientifically-backed as a legitimate form of medication, current efforts to prolong its prohibition are focused on unintended consequences. Currently, canabanoid, or CBD products are currently legal to buy, sell and consume in the state, and the state recently lessened restrictions on industrialized hemp — neither product contains THC, the intoxicating substance in marijuana.
Jay Ashley, managing partner of CBD Plus, a store specializing in canabinoid products in Ardmore, said that he plans to transition his business into a medical marijuana dispensary if voters approve State Question 788.
“There are people who absolutely don’t go seek out THC because they are obeying the law, and in some cases those people are dying from opiate use or from the diseases that aren’t treatable by opiates,” Ashley said. “In medically legal states, when you go into a dispensary, you don’t really get CBD or THC for a disease, you get the mixture your doctor wants you to take. You get ratios that help with that ailment.” Ashley said the economic impact of 788 could have positive reverberations throughout the state, county and city though licensing fees, taxes and job growth.
“You’re gonna have to have licenses not only to be a dispensary and to sell it, but you’re gonna have to have a different license to grow it and to make the edibles,”Ashley said. “It’s not just going to be people who grow it or sell it that profit from it. It will be a wide range of people from all walks of life. The state as a whole, the people it’s going to help is just the icing on the cake.”
Ashley compared the potential legalization to the legalization of gambling in the state. “When we put these things in place we expect people to be adults and do the right thing and to not go out and blow their rent money on it,” Ashley said.
Though he admitted that wasn’t always the case. While some relatively new and potential new business owners are excited about the future of a lightly regulated and under-saturated opportunity, other industry leaders and business owners remain concerned about the state question.
“The initiative, as it is written, is very vague and very ambiguous,” Mita Bates, President and CEO of the Ardmore Chamber of Commerce, said. “The stance of most people in the opposition against 788 isn’t against the medical use of marijuana, it’s how ambiguous this particular piece of legislation is written.”
Bates said business owners and industry leaders in the state are concerned with the potential consequences with hiring, firing and disciplining of employees for their use of marijuana and how it relates directly to medical treatment. A key element of 788 prevents employers from “discriminating” against users of medical marijuana and could create conflicts with state non-smoking laws and OSSHA safety standards.
The law does not address the open use of marijuana, though it does stipulate that employers could take action if an employee was to use or be in possession of medical marijuana in the workplace, though not in regards to their standing as a license holder or simply from the result of a positive drug test. Bates said employers are also concerned with their discipline options for employees who exhibit signs of intoxication or impaired actions while on the clock.
The issue also presents additional issues due to the legally protected status of THC patients and the duration that the substance remains in the users system making it difficult to prove liability and whether an individual was actually intoxicated at the time of an incident. Another concern relates to obtaining a license to acquire medical marijuana.
According to SQ 788, all applications for a medical marijuana license must be approved and signed by a board certified physician and those licenses would then need to be approved by the Oklahoma Department of Health. It is also worth noting that although Medicare, Medicaid and Soonercare do not currently cover THC related treatment, 788 does offer those patients discounts to licensing fees, while any discounts for THC products would be entirely at the discretion of the dispensary.
Most private insurance policies do not cover THC, though 788 does offer options for lower income patients to literally grow their own medicine. Todd Larkin, co-owner of Pure Wellness — a locally owned store that specializes in CBD products — and an advocate for SQ 788 agrees that the state question needs additional legislation to address what he considers are much-needed regulations on CBD products as well as addressing weaknesses in 788.
“For places like California and Colorado, they have really done their homework,” Larkin said. “They have to almost put nutritional labels on it.” Larkin said the labels display “key information that you need.”
Those labels show the percentage of THC or CBD, sometimes both, which allows doctors and dispensaries to determine the correct dosage to treat specific aliments. Larkin said he also wanted legislators to address the requirements to both grow and sell THC — 788 only addresses the auditing of sales, production and stipulations for obtaining licenses, while not addressing quality control or minimal medicinal values of the produced products.
Larkin said he would like to see the Legislature quickly implement similar regulations stress-tested in other states that have experienced success with legal THC, adding that he expected to see the legalization of recreational marijuana in Oklahoma within five years. An advocacy group is currently circulating a petition for a November state question to legalize marijuana for recreational use, something Larkin said the state isn’t quite ready for.
“The state needs to legalize medical first, and work out the kinks before we go any further,” Larkin said.
Under SQ 788, Oklahoma residents with a license would be legally able to possess up to three ounces of marijuana on their person and six seedling plants, six mature plants, one ounce of concentrated marijuana, 72 ounces of edible marijuana and up to eight ounces of marijuana in their residence. By comparison, Colorado’s recreational marijuana laws limit on-person capacity to one ounce. Earlier this year Legislators predicted a special session in July in the event that SQ 788 passed. Things have changed since, with many legislators more hesitant to “go against the will of the people” with such a quick attempt to supersede the legislation.
“How do you regulate something that the people have voted for,” Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, said adding that the Legislature would likely attempt to alter the SQ but was skeptical that it would garner enough votes this close to an already tightly contended election.
Ownbey also expressed concerns with the timetable for implementation. With only 30 days to act, the state and the Legislature face an uphill battle while much of governing body remains away from the Capitol seeking reelection. All 101 State Representatives and about half of the state’s Senators are up for reelection - Ownbey excluded as he chose to not seek reelection — most of which are facing emboldened challengers, some from within their own party. Still, the timeframe remains a cause for concern.
“The changes to alcohol gave us 18 months,” Ownbey said. “It’s not that we are against medical marijuana, we just need regulations in place. To do it this quickly, I just don’t think we have enough time to do a bang up job.” Ownbey said that while his concerns with the SQ remained, ultimately, it was up to the people of Oklahoma to decide, which would likely lead to the legalization of recreational marijuana.
“I think it will eventually happen,” Ownbey said. “The availability makes it far too accessible to enforce.”
Ownbey also took issue with the amount of money the state would receive from SQ 788. While revenues from licenses could spike every two years, the sales tax on individual purchases could fall short of some of the promises made by advocates of the legislation. At 7 percent, Oklahoma would be tied with New York for the highest sales tax on medical marijuana. By comparison, recreational marijuana in Washington state carries a sales tax of 37 percent, which could further attempts at legalizing recreational marijuana in an already cash-strapped state like Oklahoma.