Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Voters approved State Question 788 in balloting that concluded on September 26. After a contentious and expensive campaign, the measure garnered comfortable approval – in an election marked by unusually high turnout.
In final but unofficial results, the vote was 506,782 (56.84 percent) in favor, to 384, 872 opposed (43.16 percent).
After the statutory ballot proposition was approved strongly, the widespread assumption was there would be a special legislative session, allowing legislators and other state officials to address the intricacies of regulation of the formerly forbidden products. The presumption was the state would draw on the experience of the states (now a majority of the U.S.) where medical marijuana is already allowed.
But that’s where the plot, if not the pot, thickened.
Indeed, after the outcome was announced just over one week ago, Gov. Mary Fallin said – in a statement sent to The City Sentinel and other news organizations – “I respect the will of the voters in any question placed before them to determine the direction of our state. It is our responsibility as state leaders to look out for the health and safety of Oklahoma citizens. As I mentioned in previous public comments, I believe, as well as many Oklahomans, this new law is written so loosely that it opens the door for basically recreational marijuana. I will be discussing with legislative leaders and state agencies our options going forward on how best to proceed with adding a medical and proper regulatory framework to make sure marijuana use is truly for valid medical illnesses.”
New Health Solutions Oklahoma, Inc., (NHSO) Political Director, Jed Green, said in a statement sent to this reporter soon after the votes were counted: “The voice of the people has been deafening. Our campaign has only begun. We look forward to working with our elected representatives and communicating the results of those efforts with the people of Oklahoma. Our hope is that leadership is displayed by the Governor and members of the Legislature in a timely implementation of the medical cannabis program.”
Green’s group is a new trade association aiming to advance the legal and busines framework for medical marijuana in the Sooner State.
In a statement, Dr. Kevin E. Taubman, co-chairman of the “S.Q. 788 is NOT Medical Coalition” told The City Sentinel, “We are obviously disappointed by the outcome, as we believe 788 is simply too broadly written to be considered a legitimate medical marijuana program. However, we respect the will of the voters and our member groups look forward to working with the Legislature and the Health Department to advance common-sense regulations that benefit patients while protecting businesses and communities.”
On June 27 – the day after the historic vote — the state Department of Health seemed to take control of the issue, saying in a press release sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations that staff had “worked for the past three months to develop a framework for implementing the requirements of SQ 788.
Now that Oklahoma voters have approved the measure, OSDH is confident that we are ready to meet those requirements by the specified time and that the process will be handled with integrity. Emergency rules governing the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority will be considered by the Oklahoma State Board of Health at their July 10 meeting [i.e. next Tuesday]. Application information and requirements will be available by July 26 for all of the defined categories and the agency will begin accepting applications no later than August 25.”
Interim Commissioner Tom Bates, interim commissioner of the troubled agency issued a plea to Oklahomans, saying in the press release: “Please do not visit the state or county health department offices with questions relating to medical marijuana. We are still working with limited staff who deliver clinical and other services across the state.
All relevant information and instructions will be provided online.” The agency released continued, explaining, “The application process will be available at the required time and will be enhanced in the coming months to make it more efficient for all interested parties. It may take some time to fully implement all of the steps recommended in preparation for this new program, but we will continue to work to meet the letter of the law and to protect the health and safety of all Oklahomans.”
Last Friday (June 29), Governor Fallin said there would be no special session: “After conferring with House and Senate leaders, we believe a special legislative session is not necessary to implement provisions of State Question 788. The Oklahoma State Department of Health has developed emergency rules that will ensure the health and safety of Oklahomans as well as being fair and balanced for the marijuana industry.”
Echoing the agency release, she said, “The Health Department has been working with other agencies the past several months to develop a medical and proper regulatory framework to make sure marijuana use is truly for valid medical reasons. The voters have spoken, and it’s important that our state has a responsible system up and running to meet the deadlines outlined in State Question 788. If circumstances develop that adjustments to the Health Department rules are necessary, those can be addressed when lawmakers return in regular session early next year.”
Then on Thursday (July 5), leaders of the new medical marijuana industry renewed their call for a special session.
NHSO Executive Director, in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK after a state Capitol press conference, said, “There are a lot of questions left unanswered about how Oklahoma is going to implement a medical cannabis program,” said NHSO Executive Director Bud Scott. “From a medical perspective, that creates a lot of uncertainty for patients, some of whom are very sick and need to be able to get this product quickly and legally. It creates enormous uncertainty for cannabis-related businesses that are trying to figure out what the ground rules are going to be in Oklahoma. Outside of the industry, it’s also confusing for employers, cities and counties, and the law enforcement community. All of these groups are looking to our elected officials for answers.
“The Oklahoma State Department of Health does not have the capability or the legal authority to make all of these important decisions by itself,” Scott continued. “Our lawmakers must show some leadership, do their jobs, and legislate. They can’t hide from this issue. The people of Oklahoma made the choice to legalize medical cannabis, and they did so under the assumption that our elected officials would act quickly to create fair rules and regulations. Waiting for problems to arise and correcting them next year, as some politicians have suggested, is not a responsible way to govern.”
On a related but not identical issue, even before election day, on June 7 Gov. Fallin had approved a new emergency rule (from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry allowing businesses to plant industrial hemp. After that step — for a product that is not marijuana per se yet certainly related — Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese had said, “There are numerous entities offering producers various contracts to lease land or grow hemp. Industrial hemp is a very interesting plant, however, I encourage all landowners and producers to have their contracts carefully reviewed, check with their USDA/FSA office, their insurance provider and their lenders.”
Licenses for industrial hemp planing are annual, Agriculture officials noted, and expire Dec. 31, 2018.