OKLAHOMA CITY — Michelle Tilley says faith drives everything she does, including her fight to legalize recreational marijuana in her home state.
Baptized at age 7 in the First Baptist Church of Comanche, Oklahoma, the longtime Democratic political consultant leads a group that has raised $3.2 million in support of State Question 820, a pro-marijuana initiative that the state’s voters will decide Tuesday.
“I don’t talk a lot about my faith publicly,” Tilley, 46, a mother of two teenage girls, said in an interview with ReligionUnplugged.com.
“I come from a family where we were always doers and helpers of other people, but we don’t really advertise it,” she explained. “We hope that by the lives we live that we’re doing good, and it just shows that way.”
Oklahoma would become the 23rd state to approve the adult use of cannabis, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
Perhaps more noteworthy, it would be either the first or second state in the Bible Belt to do so, depending on whether one includes Virginia in that unofficial swath of Southern states where conservative Christian beliefs prevail.
Neighboring Arkansas defeated recreational marijuana in the November 2022 general election, while Missouri — not typically included in the Bible Belt — approved it.
“The low-hanging fruit for legalization has been picked, and going forward the battles could be a bit tougher,” Chris Walsh, former CEO of MJBiz, an annual cannabis business conference, told The Oklahoman. “We are talking about (tougher battles) in deep red states.”
Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the past few decades have brought “a major sea change in how conservatives view cannabis legalization, going from a situation where a vast majority were opposed to now seeing around 50% support.
“Win or lose, the vote on SQ 820 will likely be close,” Moffat said in an email, “and to see that outcome in a traditionally red state is a testament to how much has changed in recent years.”
Religious opposition to marijuana
To win in Oklahoma, Tilley’s Yes on 820 campaign must overcome opposition from a mostly grassroots coalition of faith leaders that includes Southern Baptists, her own childhood denomination.
Oklahoma Baptists, formally known as the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, passed a resolution at their statewide meeting this past fall opposing recreational marijuana.
“Legalizing addictive drugs for recreational use leaves neighborhoods, families, and schools vulnerable for exploitation,” the resolution said. “We pray that Oklahoma will maintain legal barriers between these substances and the communities they devastate, and that the church will work with Christ-centered ministries to reach people who are impacted by addiction.”
Oklahoma is known as one of the reddest of the red states. The Republican presidential candidate has received at least 60% of the tally in every election since 2000.
Yet 57% of the state’s voters previously approved a medical marijuana initiative in 2018 — over the objections of some of the same faith leaders fighting the recreational measure.
“How much different is this next step, especially if you live in Oklahoma?” asked Seth McKee, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University. “I mean, every once in a while, you smell a reefer coming out of a pickup truck (in a store parking lot). It’s not uncommon at all.”
Unlike the medical marijuana vote, SQ 820 will appear on a ballot with no other candidates or issues.
“I think it’s a question of who shows up,” McKee said. “It’s sort of a mystery of how it’s going to turn out. But I think the bigger picture question is, we just look weird. I mean, to talk about how religious the state of Oklahoma is, and we already have some of the laxest marijuana laws.
“There’s clearly a contradictory culture in the state of Oklahoma,” he added with a chuckle.
Moral repercussions vs. justice reform
Some have even dubbed the Sooner State the “Wild West of Weed.”
Roughly 10% of Oklahomans hold a medical marijuana card.
“We know that Oklahoma already has more medical dispensaries than any other state in the U.S.,” said Brian Hobbs, editor of the Baptist Messenger, the official newspaper of the state’s largest religious group. “We’ve seen our state literally go to pot in the last few years, which has concerning moral repercussions for individuals, for families, for communities.”
Besides expanding marijuana sales to adults 21 and older, SQ 820 would establish a framework to expunge past marijuana-related convictions.
Tilley focuses on the criminal justice reform aspect in touting the pro-marijuana initiative.
“State Question 820 is going to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in the state beyond the medical program,” the Yes on 820 leader said. “We know that bringing it into the light and regulating it and legalizing it is going to create an environment that is safer for consumers. And it’s also going to allow the state to collect tax dollars that we can put into our schools, into drug treatment programs and into our local communities that desperately need funding.
Oklahoma voters will decide Tuesday, March 7, if the state should expand marijuana sales to adults 21 and older under State Question 820. The election comes almost five years after Oklahoma voters gave approval to medical marijuana. Photo by Whitney Bryan, Oklahoma Watch.
“But the heart of this campaign is really about criminal justice,” she added, arguing that minor marijuana convictions on people’s records “follow them around their whole lives and prevent them from being able to get jobs, rent houses, take out student loans and things of that nature.”
Timothy McMahan King, a fellow with the national organization Clergy for a New Drug Policy, echoed Tilley’s perspective on criminal justice reform.
“You can be concerned about the effects of drugs in society,” said King, an evangelical-turned-Episcopalian who wrote the book “Addicted Nation” and a Christianity Today cover story on his battle with opioid addiction.
“But if you pursue a punitive path, you might actually be … creating more harm from drugs,” he added, “than if we go this path that focuses on regulation, education and treating drug use as a public health issue, not a criminal one.”
The impact on kids and crime
Republican Frank Keating, a former two-term Oklahoma governor, serves as the chairman of Protect Our Kids NO 820, which is fighting the initiative.
Since the opposition group didn’t register with the state until Jan. 31, it isn’t required to file a campaign finance report until after the election, noted The Frontier, an online news organization.
A recent news conference organized by the faith coalition featured representatives of Oklahoma Assemblies of God, Oklahoma Baptists, the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the northeastern Oklahoma district of the Church of the Nazarene.
“If you want to increase tax revenue, find another way,” said the Rev. Darryl Wootton, superintendent of Oklahoma Assemblies of God. “This bill is poorly written, creates challenges for our schools, obstacles for our overly taxed law enforcement.”
“These sin taxes, as they’re called, have hardly been a windfall for Oklahomans,” said the Rev. Stephen Hamilton, pastor of St. Monica Catholic Church in Edmond, north of Oklahoma City.
Speaking at the Oklahoma Faith Coalition’s recent news conference were the Rev. Darryl Wootton, superintendent of Oklahoma Assemblies of God; Paul Abner, the coalition’s executive director; the Stephen Hamilton, a priest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City; Brian Hobbs, editor of the Baptist Messenger; and Dave McKellips, northeastern Oklahoma superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene.
Abner told ReligionUnplugged.com the anti-marijuana forces have “raised considerably less” money than the Yes on 820 group, which has relied mainly on funding from out-of-state organizations and criminal justice reform groups. However, the pastor said he did not know specific figures.
“Really, our only hope is the churches in Oklahoma,” Abner said, “if our pastors will stand up and encourage people to get out and vote no on this.”
Opponents claim the preponderance of marijuana in Oklahoma poses safety hazards, such as second-hand smoke, to the state’s children.
At the same time, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control reports it has shut down more than 800 medical marijuana farms tied to organized crime over the last two years.
“The choice is clear,” Keating, who is Catholic, wrote in an op-ed in the Tulsa World. “If you want more marijuana, lower productivity, our children exposed and a criminal element, then vote yes. If, like me, you believe Oklahoma deserves better, please vote no.”
A calling to fight for reform
Tilley, the Yes on 820 campaign director, said she married a Catholic and has raised her girls in a Catholic parish and schools, even though she never formally converted herself.
“Obviously, my Baptist faith is still really who I am and where I learned all the principles of what I do every day and what I lean on a lot,” she said.
Growing up, Tilley said she was taught that dancing and drinking weren’t proper.
While she still believes that anything taken to excess can be bad, her viewpoint on certain matters, such as marijuana, has changed.
“I think there are some things in life that do not deserve people being put into prison and having their lives completely ruined,” Tilley said.
The daughter of a teacher, Tilley got her start in political activism as a teen. She joined her mother at the Oklahoma Capitol to rally for House Bill 1017, an education reform law passed in 1990.
Initially, Tilley fretted over the prospect of becoming involved in the marijuana fight.
“I’m not a marijuana user,” she said. “I mean, I will admit I’ve tried it, but I’m not a regular user by any means.”
Eventually, though, Tilley felt called to lead the SQ 820 initiative.
“It isn’t necessarily a popular thing in the church I grew up in and the small town I grew up in, so it was a really big leap of faith,” she said. “I just kept feeling like this was something I was supposed to work on. For me, it really has been a justice issue.”