Considering SQ 820 and the Legalization of Marijuana in Oklahoma
On March 7, 2023, Oklahoma will have a special election with State Question 820 on the ballot. Whether or not you are a cannabis consumer, there’s a reason you should have an opinion regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana in our state. The reality is: when the law impacts one, it impacts us all.
Let’s begin with the basics, “Yes” and “No” votes are defined by Ballotpedia as:
A “yes” vote supports legalizing recreational marijuana for adults 21 years old and older, allowing adults to possess up to one ounce (28.35 grams) of marijuana and grow up to six mature marijuana plants and up to six seedlings, and enacting a tax on marijuana sales.
A “no” vote opposes legalizing recreational marijuana for adult use in Oklahoma.
So, how will you ensure you’re making a well-informed vote on State Question 820? Understanding the history of marijuana regulation on both a national and local scale, how its criminalization is affecting our communities, and the potential costs/benefits that could result from full legalization of the drug for adults 21+ should be considered before marking your ballot.
What’s the history of marijuana regulation at the federal level?
For decades, our country has criminalized the consumption of certain drugs. Though marijuana was not always illegal in our nation, it became heavily regulated at the federal level through the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, this act was led by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger who heavily advocated for anti-marijuana conversation throughout the United States.
It’s unclear if Anslinger was truly concerned with marijuana being a threat to public safety or if he simply wanted to promote his political position by making a firm statement about something. According to Britannica, the vast majority of scientists he surveyed claimed that the drug was not dangerous. Despite not having significant scientific evidence of the “dangers” related to marijuana, he shaped a narrative of fear through mass media. To make things worse, arguably, the greater harm he created through these initiatives was heightening racist beliefs in our country. Anslinger claimed that the majority of pot smokers were minorities, including African Americans, and that marijuana had a negative effect on these “degenerate races,” such as inducing violence or causing insanity.
Anslinger was not alone in his efforts to encourage ill-conceptions of cannabis. He was also not alone in disproportionally targeting minority groups and individuals. An influential film called “Reefer Madness” was produced in 1936, which helped demonize marijuana through propaganda and described the plant as the Public Enemy No. 1.
Unfortunately, this approach by leaders, lawmakers, and systems resulted in our jails and prisons filling with people who present little to no threat to our communities. Efforts against drugs, which led to the War on Drugs, skyrocketed incarceration rates. Lengthy sentences of 10, 20, 30 years, even life imprisonment for drug offenses became commonplace. Our jails and prisons became crowded with people, without a simultaneous net positive effect on public safety.
Yes, marijuana (like any drug) can be abused and therefore harmful, but not all people who have access use or abuse it. Even if it was legally accessible to all adults over the age of 21, like alcohol, not everyone would become a consumer. We must question whether the government should have the authority to dictate individual consumption of any product.
You may have seen the news in October 2022 when President Joe Biden issued an executive order to pardon all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. In his order, the president states, “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities.”
Biden’s order sent a positive message for important reform and alleviated federal marijuana convictions for about 6,500 people, but there are still significant challenges with our legal system’s treatment of cannabis cases. Contrary to what some assume, Biden’s directive did not change the federal restrictions on marijuana. It is still considered a Schedule I drug at the federal level which, according to the DEA, means it has no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.
Which states have legalized marijuana? What can we learn from them?
Though federal laws apply to all citizens of the United States, individual states have enacted laws that contradict the federal regulation of marijuana. Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Carolina are the only states where marijuana is still considered fully illegal. The contradiction between state and federal laws creates a dynamic in which all pieces of the supply chain must be contained within state lines. Interstate trade is not yet allowed for marijuana products, though some advocates are pushing for change at the federal level to modify this circumstance.
21 states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults. This includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
The first state to allow recreational use of marijuana was Colorado, in 2014. Since then, they have generated nearly $2.3 billion in tax revenue and the industry employs about 35,000 people within the state. The funds generated through taxes are used for local governments, health care, health education, substance abuse services, law enforcement, and public schools.
A common fear expressed by anti-marijuana advocates is based on the idea that youth will have easier access to marijuana if it is legalized. According to a biannual survey of thousands of middle and high school students in Colorado, the legalization of recreational marijuana seems to have the opposite effect. The survey asks if students believe it would be sort of easy or very easy to get marijuana if they wanted. 40.3% of high school students answered yes to that question in 2021, but a year before recreational stores opened in 2013, the percentage was 54.9%.
Another common fear that is expressed is the idea that the legalization of marijuana will lead people to use other drugs like cocaine. Studies show that there is no clear relationship between marijuana legalization and cocaine use. On the other hand, some proponents of legalization claim it could lessen the consumption of alcohol. This claim also holds little weight. Following recreational marijuana legalization, some states saw a decrease in alcohol consumption and others saw an increase—all at less than 3% in either direction.
What about our state? Didn’t we already vote to legalize marijuana in Oklahoma?
In June of 2018, Oklahoma voters were presented with State Question 788 which legalized the licensed cultivation, use, and possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes. With about 900,000 votes total and 507,582 “yes” votes, the measure passed with 56.68% approval, and Oklahoma became the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana.
State Question 788 allows adult patients, with a recommendation from a licensed physician, to obtain a medical marijuana license for $100 (or $20 for Medicaid, Medicare, or disabled veteran patients). Recommendations require a doctor’s signature, but it is to the doctor’s discretion to determine what conditions qualify. When granted, patient licenses permit the possession, use, and ability to grow limited amounts of marijuana for medical purposes.
According to the State of Oklahoma, licensed patients can legally possess up to three ounces of marijuana on their person, six mature marijuana plants and the harvested marijuana, six seedling plants, one ounce of concentrated marijuana, eight ounces of marijuana in their residence, 72 ounces of edible marijuana, and 72 ounces of topical marijuana.
If you live in Oklahoma, you have likely noticed the explosion of the industry since 2018, including some challenges and controversies. State Question 788 established a regulatory system for commercial licensing of medical marijuana, including dispensaries and cultivators, but the measure did not put a cap on the number of licenses that could be approved. Now, our state has almost the same amount of registered marijuana businesses as California, even though our population is less than half of its size. The implementation of regulations, opposition from some conservative groups, and lawsuits over the regulation of medical marijuana businesses all made for a rocky start for the industry.
With few limitations to entry, marijuana businesses began appearing at an excessive pace and quantity. As of August of 2022, a moratorium was placed on new commercial licenses, which offered the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) an opportunity to catch up with annual inspections and oversight of the industry. Despite the challenges, the measure has largely been successful in providing access to medical marijuana for patients in need and has generated significant tax revenue for the state.
How did SQ 788 impact Oklahoma’s criminal legal system?
State Question 788 also reclassified the charge of possession of marijuana as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. Even though SQ788 made some positive changes, and lessened the criminalization of the drug, people can (and are) still stopped, arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for possession of marijuana.
According to Oklahoma Policy Institute, because this law does not specify a quantity of marijuana in determining between simple possession (a misdemeanor) and possession with intent to distribute (a felony), the line between the two charges often depends on the judgment of the prosecutor on the case.
This nuance means that there is plenty of room for bias to influence individual outcomes for those charged and/or prosecuted with marijuana-related crime.
The numbers demonstrate the impact of marijuana criminalization. According to a memo complied by the Just Trust for Action, data from Open Justice Oklahoma shows:
- 4,504 arrests were made in Oklahoma for marijuana possession in 2020
- 45% of all drug arrests made in Oklahoma in 2020 were made for marijuana
- Over 500 felonies and 2,200 misdemeanors have been filed annually since 2019 for marijuana-related crimes
- People convicted of marijuana possession in Oklahoma owe an average of $1,800 in court costs
- Since 2012, more than $38M in court fines have been levied against Oklahomans for marijuana possession alone
- From 2007-2020, Oklahoma law enforcement agencies made 115,536 arrests for marijuana possession and 12,532 for marijuana sales or manufacturing
- Black men are nearly five times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and more than 10 times as likely to be arrested for selling or manufacturing marijuana as white men
Imagine the amount of time our law enforcement officers would gain if they weren’t arresting individuals for possession of marijuana. Consider the opportunities an individual could access if they weren’t having to deal with excessive fines and fees.
Will medical marijuana users have to pay more if SQ 820 passes? How would it affect taxes?
According to a recent article in The Oklahoman, nearly one in 10 Oklahoma residents has a license to purchase and use marijuana. These individuals have all gone through the approval process for a marijuana license and are subject to the 7% excise tax on retail sales of medical marijuana products.
If it passes, it would impose a 15% excise tax on sale to consumers (not applicable to medical marijuana). This means that licensed medical card holders would not be subject to the same taxes imposed on recreational marijuana. The funding would go to an Oklahoma Marijuana Revenue Trust Fund, which would cover administrative costs of the program. The surplus would be divided between municipalities where the sales occurred (10 percent), the State Judicial Revolving Fund (10 percent), the general fund (30 percent), public education grants (30 percent) and grants for programs involved in substance misuse treatment and prevention (20 percent).
With 10% of Oklahoma residents licensed to use marijuana, it seems reasonable to assume there are more who would consume the drug recreationally. This means there is a significant opportunity for additional public dollars to be generated through the taxation of the product. Marijuana Moment, a publication that reports on the development and trends affecting cannabis, outlined the potential impact in a recent article. The report they referenced shows that from 2024 to 2028, Oklahoma stands to gain $821 million in combined medical and recreational taxes, $434 million of which would be generated from the 15% excise tax on recreational sales to adults.
What else would happen if we pass SQ 820?
According to the Yes on 820 campaign, “State Question 820 will create a sensible program tailored to Oklahoma, carefully balancing personal freedom with responsible regulation. Products will be tested, labeled, and tracked from seed-to-sale; employers will be able to maintain a drug-free workplace; and it keeps penalties in place for anyone who gives marijuana to someone under 21.”
Individuals who are currently serving time in prison for marijuana offenses would be eligible for resentencing. Additionally, folks who have marijuana charges could have them expunged and any related fines and fees would be waived or dismissed.
The impact of legalization depends on the specific policies and regulations implemented by each state. Negative consequences can be mitigated through effective regulation and education. As with any newer industry, there is opportunity for both negative and positive impacts on individual lives, the economy, and the community.
It’s up to us to determine what we want to see for our state’s future. Take a moment to do some of your own research so you can make an informed and thoughtful decision on March 7.