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Officials say SQ 820 vote was mandate for tougher regulation of medical marijuana in Oklahoma

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In the lead-up to the recreational marijuana vote, one of Mike Dobrinski's biggest worries was that it would pass by a narrow margin.

But when Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly rejected State Question 820 on Tuesday, the state representative breathed a sigh of relief. The morning after, he described a similar mood among his colleagues inside the Capitol. In their eyes, there was no equivocation.

"I certainly feel like it was a vote affirming the changes that we have made, and expecting us to continue to limit what we have now," said Dobrinski, R-Kingfisher. "It definitely was a mandate against any expansion."

The state question failed in every one of Oklahoma's 77 counties. Statewide, over 61% of voters said no.

Soldiers with the Oklahoma National Guard help remove marijuana plants for destruction after a raid at a grow operation in Kay County last September. PROVIDED

"Many of us feared that passage of SQ 820 would create a whole new obstacle for regulators and our law enforcement (who are) already overextended with the challenges created by medical industry and the black market," Dobrinski said.

For the most part, lawmakers wanted to wait until the March 7 vote to make any significant changes to Oklahoma's marijuana laws. However, several bills have quietly made their way through the legislative process and are still able to become law.

Some of those bills would put limits on THC potency, require a "qualifying medical condition" for medical marijuana patients under 18, allow cities to adopt zoning restrictions on cannabis businesses, close loopholes to prevent illegal land ownership and require doctors who recommend medical marijuana to complete specific training.

"Oklahoma is a better place for this state question failing,” said state Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan. “I think the overwhelming results are also a clear sign that Oklahomans are not happy with the current medical marijuana program and want it to be reformed. That is why this session I have introduced a number of bills that will close loopholes in illegal activity, further protect children and make the program a true medical marijuana program, not recreational marijuana-lite, which is what it is now.”

Even Gov. Kevin Stitt echoed that same sentiment in a press conference on Friday. The governor said Oklahomans are experiencing "fatigue" with the medical marijuana industry.

"I don't think anybody expected it to be defeated that bad, but as I was traveling the state, I knew Oklahomans didn't want it," Stitt said. "They were so tired of a dispensary on every single corner. So, clearly, we don't want recreational, and I think there's an appetite to tighten up the medical side as well."

The governor said Oklahomans have a big heart, and that if marijuana helps medically, patients should be able to participate in the program.

"But we don't believe that anybody with a hangnail should be able to get a medical card," Stitt said.

A prominent advocate of the medical marijuana industry, however, says that state officials are misreading voters' intentions.

"It's the program that we have that people are happy with. They didn't want to change it," said Jed Green, director of Oklahomans for Responsible Cannabis Action.

"If the governor and Legislature goes in and makes the mistake with this misread, and they push for limiting conditions or restricting telemedicine and taking access away, the knee-jerk reaction is going to be another recreational bill."

Green criticized the regulation and tax structure in SQ 820, saying that with a better proposal, there are enough votes in Oklahoma to adopt recreational marijuana.

"The best thing they can do is just to let this thing settle down, let enforcement (agencies) catch up and let this thing stabilize," he said. "If they go in and they look to limit individual access, that will be the trigger that will pass recreational in this state. Because then, everyone has something to lose."

Other legislation that could advance in the next few weeks would permanently prohibit a business from acquiring a medical marijuana license if they intentionally don't pay state taxes. House Bill 2095 also includes a provision that would ban cannabis growers from knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants and limit the number of state-licensed grow operations to 1,000 at any one time.

As of Feb. 8, more than 7,000 grower licenses had been approved by the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, although it's unclear whether the state has that many active farms.

When it became clear that SQ 820 would fail late on Tuesday, the campaign's leadership told supporters at a rally that it was now up to the governor and lawmakers to preserve and strengthen the medical marijuana program. Campaign director Michelle Tilley also called on state officials to continue the state's criminal justice reform efforts to make sure people aren't sent to jail for a minor infraction of the marijuana law.

Currently, someone found in possession of a small amount of marijuana without a medicinal license can still face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, or a smaller fine without jail time if they can simply state a medical reason for having it.

If the state question had passed, individuals already in the justice system for marijuana possession could have requested to have their sentences expunged.

"It is in your hands, and we challenge you to do it, and we are here in good faith to work with you to make those changes happen," Tilley said.


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