Oklahoma Rejects Full Legalisation

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Cannabis flower legalisation
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Oklahoma joined a number of conservative states whose voters have recently decided against recreational marijuana legalisation.

OKLAHOMA – In the past few years, Oklahoma, long a solid bastion of conservatism, has quietly undergone a street-level transformation when it comes to marijuana. Dispensaries dot the landscape, with more than 400 in Oklahoma City alone.

And that is just for medical marijuana.

On Tuesday, voters across Oklahoma opted against going further, according to The Associated Press, rejecting a legalisation ballot initiative that would have legalised recreational marijuana use by adults 21 and older.

With the vote, Oklahoma joined a number of conservative states whose voters have recently decided against recreational marijuana legalisation. Although Missouri approved a state constitutional amendment to allow for recreational marijuana in November 2022, voters in other conservative states, including Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota, rejected similar proposals.

The vote on Tuesday was a setback for marijuana legalisation proponents in Oklahoma who had anticipated that laissez-faire economic attitudes and growing support among younger Republicans would provide a pathway for the state to join a diverse assortment of 21 states and the District of Columbia in adopting legal recreational marijuana, from Alaska and the Mountain West to the coasts and parts of the Midwest.

But voters in Oklahoma, where nearly 10 per cent of the population already has a medical marijuana card, appeared to have decided that the current level of access to the drug was enough. In the end, the measure failed.

“I’ve got no problem with the use of marijuana,” said Mr Paul Boudreaux, 67, a lawyer whose face often appears in local television commercials for his firm and voted “no” on the measure. He said he had supported medical marijuana, and called Tuesday’s vote a “difficult choice”.

“I think the harm that can come of this, especially when the drug cartels are coming in from everywhere, because it’s totally uncontrolled, exceeds the good and the tax money that the state will acquire,” said Mr Boudreaux.

Opponents and supporters of what was known as State Question 820 massed along mostly familiar lines. Criminal justice reform advocates, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and some labour unions voiced support. Opponents included the governor, Mr Kevin Stitt, along with dozens of Republican state lawmakers and some law enforcement and agricultural associations.

“The reason I think it’s a bad idea is that it’s still illegal federally,” said Mr Stitt at a news conference last month. “I think marijuana is bad for young people. I think people need to understand the side effects of that.”

He also said that the state had struggled with the swift rise of marijuana production after the legalisation by voters of a medical marijuana program in 2018.

The state, which has prided itself on being welcoming to commerce, opened a similar door to the marijuana industry, offering business licences at a fraction of the price charged in other states. The state also offers cheaper land prices and building costs for new businesses.

“We have something like 7,000 or 8,000 growers in Oklahoma,” said Mr Stitt, as he compared with about one-quarter of that number in California, which has legalised recreational marijuana. “It’s taken us a while to get our arms around that.”

The state legislature passed a two-year moratorium on new medical marijuana business licences last year. The Oklahoma Farm Bureau, which opposes recreational marijuana legalisation, has said the existing marijuana industry in the state is already straining rural infrastructure.

Conservative leaders in Oklahoma and in other states have voiced concern about ballot initiatives on marijuana, raising the minimum wage and protecting access to abortion, and in recent years they have begun seeking to limit the ability of voters to directly decide such questions. The governor of South Dakota brought a successful legal challenge after voters in her state approved a state constitutional amendment in November 2020 to legalise recreational marijuana. A new vote on the measure failed last year.

A bill introduced in Oklahoma this legislative session would place new restrictions on ballot initiatives, including barring them from even-numbered years, when turnout is higher. Conservatives generally have an advantage in elections with lower turnout.

Mr Stitt set the date of Tuesday’s election, a day in March when no other statewide races are on the ballot. Proponents of the measure had been worried that low turnout could doom their efforts. Early vote totals were far below those in a typical Oklahoma election.

“That’s been one of our biggest challenges – making sure people know that there’s an election,” said Mr Ryan Kiesel, a spokesperson for the “yes on 820” campaign. He said the group expected to spend about $5 million (S$6.8 million) on the effort, much of which went to the initial push to gather enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, and also toward advertising to raise awareness of the vote. Opponents have spent a fraction of that amount.

“This election isn’t about whether Oklahoma will have marijuana,” said Mr Kiesel. “Marijuana is here. It’s about what we’re going to do about it.” He pointed to those Oklahomans without medical marijuana cards who have been arrested for possession of the drug, pointing to the need to more fully legalise it.

The proliferation of dispensaries – the state counts 2,890 active licences – is evident on even the shortest drive through many municipalities. In the Oklahoma City neighbourhood of Bricktown, which has many restaurants and hotels, dispensaries were already setting up before the election in anticipation of possible marijuana tourism from Texas or other neighboring states, should the ballot measure have passed.

“I feel like we already have recreational marijuana. It just doesn’t seem like there are any barriers,” Mayor David Holt said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “Right now, I’m well aware there’s a dispensary on every corner.”

On Tuesday, outside a polling place in downtown Tulsa, Mr Quinn Johnson said he voted yes on the measure, which, in addition to legalising the use of marijuana for those 21 and older, would have set up a process for expunging criminal convictions for certain past marijuana offenses.

“I support decriminalisation of drugs, especially marijuana,” said Mr Johnson, 24, who has had a medical marijuana card for about a year. “The tax money is going to go, they say, toward schools, drug rehabilitation, student retention, you know, like, that’s all great.”

At House of Dank, a marijuana dispensary in the city, Mr Austin Reed, a co-manager of the store, said that legalising recreational marijuana could have doubled his business and brought in more tax revenue to the state. “I’ve heard it could bring more crime and stuff like that, but I’m not so sure,” Reed said.

At a polling place in a church in south Tulsa, voters opposed to the measure were not hard to find. “We already have too many marijuana problems right now,” Ms Cherrie Stunkard, 65, said, pointing to the safety impact of marijuana on drivers. “We don’t need more, and this will absolutely cause more problems.”