Court Rules Oklahoma Won’t Vote On Legalizing Pot in November

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that voters will get to decide on a ballot proposal to legalize recreational marijuana, but not until after this year’s general election in November. The state’s highest court rejected an appeal from the group Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws that would have required the State Election Board to include State Question 820 on the ballot for this year’s vote.

“There is no way to mandate the inclusion of SQ820 on the November 2022 general election ballot,” Justice Douglas Combs wrote in the majority opinion. “SQ820 will be voted upon by the people of Oklahoma, albeit either at the next general election following November 8, 2022, or at a special election set by the Governor or the Legislature.”

In July, Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws submitted petitions with signatures from more than 164,000 voters in favor of the legalization initiative, exceeding the number required to qualify for the ballot by more than 70,000 signatures. But the secretary of state’s office, which was using a new system to verify signatures, took far longer to certify the signatures than in previous elections, leaving too little time to include the question on this fall’s ballot, according to election officials.

Jeffrey Cartmell, counselor to the secretary of state, said the service provided by the third-party vendor to check signatures was possibly the first “true signature verification process” ever used by the state.  

“This new process differs significantly from the historical practice of merely counting the number of individuals who signed the petition without regard for their voter registration status,” Cartmell wrote in a statement to News 9.

The Supreme Court also issued a decision on legal challenges to State Question 820 on Wednesday, ruling against two petitions that sought changes in the measure’s ballot title and summary. The justices also denied requests for rehearings on two challenges to the signature gathering process that the court had already rejected.

“It is disappointing that a few people with their own political interests were able to use the process to prevent voters from voting on this in November,” campaign director Michelle Tilley said in a statement. “However, we cannot lose sight of how far we have come. This is a big deal. Now the petition phase is finished, and Oklahomans will be voting to legalize recreational marijuana here, and we can soon realize all the benefits it will bring to our state.”

State Question 820 Would Legalize Rec Weed in Oklahoma

If the proposal is eventually passed, State Question 820 would legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older. The ballot initiative would also task the state’s existing Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority with drafting and implementing rules to regulate the new recreational cannabis industry. The measure also includes provisions to allow those with past convictions for some marijuana offenses to petition the courts to reverse their convictions and have their criminal record expunged.

State Question 820 would set a 15% tax on sales of recreational marijuana, more than double the 7% tax rate levied on sales of medical cannabis. Taxes generated by the sale of recreational pot would be divided among the state’s General Revenue Fund, local governments that allow licensed adult-use cannabis businesses to operate in their jurisdiction, the state court system, school districts, and drug treatment programs.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, State Question 820 will not be presented to the electorate until the 2024 general election, unless a special election is called by Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, who has expressed opposition to the proposal. But he has also said that the nation’s patchwork policy of cannabis legalization and prohibition has become problematic.

“Do I wish that the feds would pass legalized marijuana? Yes. I think that would solve a lot of issues from all these different states,” Stitt recently told The Associated Press. “But in our state, just trying to protect our state right now, I don’t think it would be good for Oklahoma.”

Arshad Lasi, CEO of Oklahoma licensed medical marijuana company The Nirvana Group, said that news of the Supreme Court’s decision “is disappointing because the industry and consumers here alike were optimistic that recreational marijuana would make it onto the ballot and be voted into law.”

“This setback may make things especially difficult for smaller businesses, who will likely continue to face challenges navigating this saturated market but growing market,” Lasi said in an email to High Times. “We are optimistic that another opportunity for adult-use marijuana may be possible via a special election in the coming months. However, if that doesn’t prevail we may not have another chance for two years.”

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Oklahoma Puts Moratorium On Issuing New Medical Cannabis Licenses

State officials in Oklahoma have put a moratorium on issuing new licenses for medical marijuana businesses in a bid to allow the state’s cannabis regulators to catch up with oversight of a burgeoning medicinal cannabis industry. Under the moratorium, which was passed by state lawmakers earlier this year, no new licenses for medical growers, processors or dispensaries will be issued by the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) for a period of at least two years.

Oklahoma voters legalized the use and sale of medical pot with the approval of State Question 788 in 2018, a ballot measure that created the least tightly regulated legal cannabis market in the nation. Corbin Wyatt, owner of Likewise Dispensary, said that the state’s medical marijuana law included few barriers to entry for entrepreneurs seeking opportunities in cannabis.

“It was easy,” Wyatt told local media. “You pay $2,500 and you can open your business pretty much anywhere.”

In May, Oklahoma lawmakers passed House Bill 3208, which puts a two-year pause on issuing new licenses for medical cannabis businesses. The new restrictions under the measure were originally scheduled to become effective on August 1, but bills must go into effect at least 90 days after passage unless they gain a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature. The bill was signed by Governor Kevin Stitt on May 26, making it effective on August 26 under state law.

Applications for new medical cannabis businesses submitted before the moratorium goes into effect will be processed by the OMMA. But applications that are denied or received after the deadline will not be considered until 2024 at the earliest.

Mark Woodward, public information officer for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (OBN), said the state already has over 2,200 medical dispensaries, making oversight of the businesses by state regulators a logistical challenge.

“That’s a tremendous amount of dispensaries,” Woodward told a Tulsa television news crew. “It’s more than California, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, Nevada and New Mexico combined.”

Unlicensed Businesses Are Operating Outside the Law

Woodward said that many of the businesses that have been operating in the state, even some that have been licensed by the OMMA, have been producing cannabis for shipment out of Oklahoma illegally. He added that some of the state’s 8,500 medical weed cultivators have ties to organized crime organizations from the United States, Mexico, and China that have moved into the state, many during the COVID-19 pandemic, to take advantage of Oklahoma’s inexpensive licensing fees and relatively lax cannabis regulations.

“We’ve talked to our law enforcement partners from New York to Florida, and they say we are the number one supplier of black market marijuana on the East Coast,” he said.

Woodward said that some of the state’s licensed medical dispensaries are selling cannabis that has been produced by illicit growers and processors. He added that the pause in new businesses will give regulators and the OBN an opportunity to regulate the state’s medical marijuana supply chain more closely.

“This moratorium will allow us to focus on those we already have in place and make sure they’re either following the law or going after those bad actors,” he explained.

Matt Boyd, the owner of the Green Cross Meds cannabis dispensary in Tulsa, said that the state’s saturated market has caused profits from his business to drop by two-thirds.

“In the last year, I’m not the only dispensary owner that has felt a decline in business, and it’s not because of anything we’ve done different,” he explained. “It’s just because there’s been so many dispensaries that have opened up. Just the limit of ‘no more new dispensaries’ coming into business is gonna help all of us existing dispensary owners now.”

Boyd said that the two-year moratorium on new retailer licenses will slow the impact on existing retailers.

“It’s time to allow a market that’s brand new, a brand-new grassroots industry in our state, to kinda have some balance, y’know?” Boyd said. “And that’s just what it’s gonna take.”

Oklahoma lawmakers recently passed a total of 12 bills to tighten regulations on the state’s medical cannabis industry, including a requirement that new dispensaries and cultivation operations be located at least 1,000 ft. from schools. The moratorium on the issuance of new licenses is scheduled to be in effect until August 1, 2024, or until the medical marijuana authority catches up on the backlog of pending applications. But some business owners believe that may never happen.

“Until the OMMA either feels that they are able to control everything and it’s an opportune time to issue new licenses, but most people are saying that won’t ever come,” Wyatt said.

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