After SQ 820 loss, marijuana-related justice reform shifts to Legislature
With Oklahoma voters deciding against full marijuana legalization on State Question 820, the focus turns to the Legislature to address criminal justice reforms related to low-level marijuana convictions and the continued fallout from almost five years of medical marijuana sales.
SQ 820 drew opposition from almost the entirety of the state apart from the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas, underscoring a continuing divide between the largest cities and the rest of Oklahoma. Despite support from the biggest cities, both Oklahoma and Tulsa counties narrowly defeated the measure. Unofficial results late Tuesday had the opposition at 62%, with backers at 38%. More than 566,000 voters showed up for a March special election where marijuana legalization was the only item on the ballot statewide.
Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, attended the Yes on 820 watch party on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City and said lawmakers should now address the problems with the illicit cannabis market.
“The Legislature is going to have to get off their tail and pass some legislation,” McDugle said. “We’ve got to get rid of the black market. The only way to do that honestly is to regulate the whole thing.”
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who were against the initiative, praised the result in separate statements on Tuesday evening. Both said they remain focused on enforcement against illicit grow operations across the state.
Backers of SQ 820 said they were disappointed but hopeful the election spurred a broader conversation about the urgency of addressing past convictions of low-level marijuana crimes.
“This wasn’t about legalizing marijuana, this was about keeping Oklahomans out of the criminal justice system,” said Ryan Kiesel, a former state representative and advisor to the campaign.
Campaign director Michelle Tilley said despite the defeat, Oklahoma is one step closer to ending a two-tier criminal justice system that treats cannabis users differently.
“This is just a matter of when,” Tilley said. “Change is coming. We know that 80% of people under the age of 40 believe legalization needs to happen. It's just a matter of when. And so we all have to stay banded together and keep fighting this fight and keep pushing forward.”
The No campaign, which brought together a coalition of law enforcement groups, some Christian denominations and business associations, said the defeat sends a clear message and underscores the need for more mental health funding to tackle drug abuse.
“Oklahomans oppose the unfettered access to marijuana we have experienced under our so-called medical program,” said Pat McFerron with Protect Our Kids No 820.
Just over one-fourth of the state’s registered voters participated in the special election, according to unofficial results from the Oklahoma State Election Board. That stands in contrast to last November’s general election, when just over half of the voters cast a ballot.
Voter turnout was a question mark leading up to the special election. The last time an initiative made a non-primary or general election ballot was September 2005.
When State Question 788 appeared on the June 2018 primary ballot, approximately 43% of registered voters weighed in on the initiative to legalize medical marijuana. But that year’s primary, held less than three months after the statewide teacher walkout ended, also featured dozens of competitive races for statewide offices and legislative seats.
A series of delays last August and September, including snags in implementing a new signature verification system, compounded to keep State Question 820 off the November ballot. With the option to set a special election date in 2023 or place the question before voters in 2024, Gov. Kevin Stitt settled on the closer date.
A low cost of entry for commercial license fees in the medical marijuana program led to thousands of businesses entering the market since the passage of State Question 788 in June 2018. That market saturation has led to a glut of product, lowering prices for consumers but making it an extremely competitive cannabis market for business owners. Delays and lawsuits over implementing seed-to-sale tracking technology have contributed to some of the glut in cannabis production and possibly its diversion to the illicit market.
There likely will always be illegal marijuana growing operations in Oklahoma, but there’s an existing moratorium on new commercial licenses for growing, processing, transporting and dispensaries under the state’s medical marijuana program. That moratorium ends in August 2024.
About $5.1 million through Tuesday, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. Unlike candidate campaigns, there are no limits on contributions and expenditures for campaigns on state questions.
The Yes on 820 Oklahomans for Sensible Marjuana Laws campaign raised about $3.2 million by the end of 2022, spending almost all of it on gathering petitions and putting the initiative on the ballot. In the final two weeks leading up to the election, the Yes campaign reported spending of $1.68 million.
The Protect our Kids No on 820 campaign formed in January and has yet to file a contribution report. The campaign reported spending almost $220,000 in the final two weeks of the campaign.
Since 1970, has been a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, which means it has the highest prohibitions on use, along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. President Joe Biden and some in Congress have called for cannabis to be rescheduled under federal law, which would allow more federally supported research into the drug.
A proposal in the U.S. House would relax strict banking regulations around cannabis businesses. A version of that bill, the SAFE Banking Act, has been introduced each session since 2019. The latest version, voted on in April 2021, passed the House but didn’t make it through the Senate. Oklahoma’s all-Republican delegation at the time was split on the bank bill, with Reps. Stephanie Bice, Tom Cole and Kevin Hern voting for it. Reps. Frank Lucas and Markwayne Mullin (now a U.S. Senator) voted against it.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.