Medical Marijuana Ballot Issue Faces Oklahoma Voters

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Photo Credit: Rappler

Supporters of State Question 788 say a “yes” vote is a vote for medical marijuana.

Opponents say that’s not true. They contend a “yes” vote is tantamount to a vote for recreational marijuana.

Who is a person to believe? And will that matter to Oklahoma voters who will cast their ballots in a country where nine of the 30 states that have previously approved medical marijuana have later gone on to approve recreational marijuana, as well?

After weeks of listening to divisive arguments and evaluating conflicting information, Oklahoma voters will finally have their say on the issue Tuesday when they vote in the state’s primary election.

What backers are saying

Backers of State Question 788 say the decision is fairly simple.

“People are suffering,” said Chip Paul, co-founder of the group that circulated the petition to get the issue on the ballot. “People are suffering in silence. Some people are treating themselves illegally. All these people need a legal outlet to be able to use this medicine, so it’s critical that we pass this now.”

Opponents — including representatives of some of the state’s most prominent medical, business, religious, law enforcement and farm and ranch organizations — say the state question is anything but simple.

Several Oklahoma doctors have declared they would support medical marijuana, but they do not support State Question 788.

At the heart of many Oklahoma physicians’ concerns is language in the petition that says “there are no qualifying conditions” required for an Oklahoma physician to recommend medical marijuana for a patient.

That wording is not contained in the summary ballot title that voters will see when they vote Tuesday, but it is contained in the petition that was circulated and would be part of the new law that would take effect if voters approve the state question.

Several doctors have expressed concerns that provision could prompt a handful of less-than-scrupulous doctors to operate clinics where they would recommend marijuana for just about anything in order to churn profits.

“State Question 788 is not medical. It is strictly a disguise for recreational marijuana,” Dr. Larry Bookman, president-elect of the Oklahoma Medical Association said at a recent news conference.

Dr. Bookman said reputable studies have indicated that marijuana may have some medicinal value in the treatment of nausea and pain in cancer patients, spasticity related to multiple sclerosis, and possibly some nausea or seizure disorders.

“Across the board, they did not show support for many of the conditions you’re seeing in TV ads,” he said.

Dr. Bookman said there are more than 700 strands of marijuana that have different properties.

“You can’t pass a law that allows all strands,” he said. “It needs to be where we have studied it … We either need to make a choice that we’re going to do scientific-backed legislation, or we’re going to do Dr. Feel Good quackery.”

Paul downplayed the physician’s concerns, saying doctors will be putting their professional reputations on the line when they recommend medical marijuana for patients and those doctors are in the best position to know whether the drug should be recommended.

Drafters of the petition specifically wrote it to give broad discretion to doctors rather than listing specific ailments because medical marijuana has treatment value for a variety of ailments and more uses are likely to be discovered, Paul said. Providing a list of ailments would require repeatedly going back to the legislature to seek amendments, a process that has caused difficulty in other states, he said.

What opponents are saying

Opponents have voiced a long list of other objections to SQ 788. Among them:

• The quantity of marijuana a license holder would be allowed to keep would be far more than what is needed for medicinal purposes. Under the proposal, a person would be allowed to carry three ounces of marijuana, which opponents said would be enough to roll 85 or more joints. Each person also would be allowed to legally possess eight ounces of marijuana in their residence, 72 ounces of edible marijuana, six mature plants, six seedling plants and one ounce of concentrated marijuana.

• The wording in the petition is so loose that in addition to MDs and osteopathic practitioners, doctors of veterinary medicine, dentists, optometrists, podiatrist and chiropractors might be able to authorize medical marijuana for patients.

• Working environments would become less safe because employers would be unable to terminate an employee based on a positive drug test for marijuana or its components.

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• There would be questions as to whether marijuana smoking would be permitted in hotels, parks and large entertainment venues.

Paul said he believes many of the arguments presented by opponents of medical marijuana are bogus.

Paul said he believes it is clear that entertainment venues and other building owners would have the ability to prohibit marijuana smoking in their establishments.

Paul contends it is also clear that veterinarians could not recommend marijuana for humans.

If problems do arise or clarifications are needed, that could be done through Health Department regulations or future legislation, he said.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health already has begun circulating 61 pages of working draft regulations that could resolve some of the ambiguities.

For example, the draft regulations would define physicians as “board certified” doctors of medicine or doctors of osteopathy who have current and active registrations from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. It also would require them to be in good standing with their licensure boards and to complete all training for the recommendation of medical marijuana or medical marijuana products to patients before recommending a patient for a medical marijuana license.

The draft regulations also would prohibit smoking or vaping medical marijuana in the same types of public places where tobacco smoking is currently prohibited and would prohibit smoking or vaping medical marijuana in the presence of someone under age 18.

The governor also has indicated she expects to call a special session to deal with the medical marijuana issue if the question passes.

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