Can Medical Marijuana Save Education Funding In Oklahoma

Photo Credit: Rappler

There’s no debate about it. Oklahoma has a funding crisis.

Education funding has been one of the biggest concerns over the last month after a teacher walkout that made national news. Teachers and lawmakers may have come to an agreement this year, but there’s still plenty of discussion to come.

One idea that’s been thrown around is legalizing medical marijuana. Voters will have their say in about a month when they can vote on State Question 788.

But could legal medical marijuana be what heals Oklahoma’s ailing schools? In reality, probably not, but it won’t hurt them either.

On top of a good haircut, folks at Indian Springs Barber shop serve up a slice of Americana. The day often starts with a strong cup of coffee and a healthy debate.

But while we were there, it was medical marijuana. Opinions were thrown out all over the barber shop.

“Big pharma doesn’t want anything you can grow in your backyard.”

“I’m opposed to that, so that’s where I stand.”

Sitting in the corner, Ray Jennings is in the heart of the debate.

“You were raised the same way I was Danny. I understand where you’re coming from,” said Jennings.

When Jennings faced off in the fight for his life he picked an unusual sidekick, pot.

“If you would have told me four years ago, you’d be sitting in my house and we’d be having this conversation and I’d be on this side of it, I’d say you’re smoking some of that wacky stuff,” said Jennings.

He said that wacky stuff, medical marijuana, helped him fight stage four cancer. He hopes if it’s legalized it could also help Oklahoma as well.

“We realize the state needs additional funding in a lot of areas, but education is certainly hurting more than anyone else as far as I know,” said Jennings.

To answer that question, we turn to Brandon Rittiman. He’s a political reporter at KUSA in Denver. He said when Coloradans heard the pitch for recreational pot, it sounded a lot like what’s going on in Oklahoma.

“Voters were sold on legalizing marijuana, that it would raise all this money for schools. When the legislature decided on a system for taxing marijuana, most of the money didn’t go to schools. That wasn’t built in there, but voters approved that too,” said Rittiman.

Rittiman said marijuana has brought hundreds millions of tax dollars to Colorado. If it’s legalized here, Oklahoma can expect some money to come its way.

“It’s going to raise some money, it is going to allow the state to do some things. It’s not going to pave the streets in gold, it is not going to allow you to double the salary to every teacher you’re paying in the state,” said Rittiman.

Rittiman said most of the money from marijuana sales has been divided up. Around $40 million a year goes toward education. It isn’t much, but it helps rural schools.

“That’s what $40 million can get you, upgrading air conditioning system and fire system in some of these rural schools. Forty-million is not enough to run a multi-billion-dollar state government, let alone the school districts, which are the biggest spending item in the state budget,” said Rittiman.

However, he said there’s one important fact in the marijuana debate — money that was going to criminals is now going to the state.

“One thing that gets lost in the debate over marijuana, we’ve now got this billion-dollar a year industry that we didn’t have before in the state and it continues to grow even though other states are legalizing it,” said Rittiman.

In Oklahoma, Jennings estimates medical marijuana could bring anywhere from $60 million to $80 million to schools. That number isn’t enough to dramatically change education funding, but it won’t hurt either. However, history shows us sometimes money isn’t always put where it’s promised.

“I think once it passes, as long as we can keep the legislators on the straight path of doing the right thing,” said Jennings.

The debate continues at the barber shop.

“We need to get our legislature in check. If that means we’ve got to roll some heads down there, we’ve got to roll some heads.”

They aren’t solving all the world’s problems here.

“If I’ve got to be the only guy on this planet, I’m saying no to it until you come up with a better law.”

But, it’s a start.

“You’re a good man. Thank you for your part in the discussion.”