Jun 08, 2019 08:21 AM EDT
The rollout of statewide medical and recreational marijuana programs typically is a grindingly slow process that can take years. Not so in Oklahoma, which moved with lightning speed once voters approved medical cannabis in June. The ballot question received 57 percent support and established one of the nation's most liberal medical pot laws in one of the most conservative states. Six months later, the cannabis industry is booming.
Farmers and entrepreneurs are racing to start commercial grow operations, and the state is issuing licenses to new patients, growers, and dispensary operators at a frantic pace. Retail outlets opened just four months after legalization.
Unlike virtually every other state, Oklahoma officials created no list of qualifying medical conditions for people to get medicinal marijuana. That has prompted a flood of applications for personal licenses to purchase pot. Since August more than 22,000 have been approved and thousands more are in the pipeline. There are now 785 licensed dispensaries. Some small Oklahoma towns have as many as a half-dozen. Norman and Stillwater, the state's two largest college towns, have 45 combined.
The primary driver behind Oklahoma's quick rollout was a broadly written, citizen-led ballot question that included quick deadlines and required regulators to grant a license to every qualified applicant. But several political ingredients combined to push the effort along.
First, instead of the general election in November, Gov. Mary Fallin placed the question on the June primary ballot, where it passed overwhelmingly despite opposition from law enforcement, doctors and clergy. That allowed more time for the program to ramp up before the Legislature returns in February.
Then, when the Oklahoma State Board of Health tried to impose heavy-handed restrictions, such as banning smoke-able pot and requiring a pharmacist at every dispensary, the public was outraged. Every segment of the pro-marijuana movement mobilized and even the state's Republican attorney general weighed in with a legal opinion that the board had gone too far.
"I think every Oklahoman who has a soul was appalled that they tried to change a political decision that the people of Oklahoma had just made," said Chip Paul, who helped write and push for State Question 788. "After that board meeting and after the attorney general's letter, the third rail of politics would be to mess with SQ 788."
Oklahoma's conservative Legislature took notice. While GOP leaders still plan to implement some general standards for lab testing, packaging and measures to prevent pot from ending up on the black market, they appear in no rush to make wholesale changes.
"I do not see an appetite at all to go in and try to undo the will of the people and get rid of medical marijuana," said state Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, who served on a medical pot task force.
The state's new Medical Marijuana Authority already has raked in more than 7.5 million dollars from registration fees from patients, growers, and dispensaries. The first revenue from the new seven percent sales tax on pot sales began dribbling into state coffers last month.
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