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Voters in Oklahoma have overwhelmingly rejected State Question 820, a proposal to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana. This marks the latest setback for marijuana legalization advocates in recent months.
Opponents of the bill presented it as a threat to children, even though it would have legalized cannabis only for adults. Furthermore, they pointed out the ongoing difficulties caused by medical marijuana's legalization.
State Question 820 was a citizen-driven initiative that would have legalized recreational cannabis use for adults 21 and older. It had the support of criminal justice reform advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Governor, several law enforcement associations, medical marijuana advocates and many religious organizations but was opposed by law enforcement associations, religious leaders and more.
Supporters of the measure argued it was necessary to help balance supply and demand in Oklahoma's cannabis industry. They also noted that medical marijuana had become oversaturated with growers and dispensaries in the state. Legalizing recreational cannabis would increase sales of cannabis products while raising tax revenue, they predicted.
In a special election held in March, more than 566,000 voters cast their votes on whether to legalize marijuana. Unofficial results at press time showed that 62% of voters opposed the measure while 38% supported it.
Opponents of the measure said it would create a new criminal justice issue for the state by expanding the illegal market for adult-use cannabis. Furthermore, they noted that it would disproportionately impact Black people since they are arrested and convicted of possession more often than white men, making marijuana legalization an issue of racial justice.
Opponents of the measure raised millions in campaign funds despite opposition from the political establishment. According to reports filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Yes on 820 Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws has spent approximately $5.1 million through Tuesday.
Supporters of the initiative collected over 117,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. They noted that marijuana has been used by humans since antiquity and has been used in medicine for centuries. Furthermore, they stressed the need to decriminalize marijuana use and allow individuals to seek expungement of low-level marijuana convictions.
Supporters of the initiative hoped legalization would reduce stigma surrounding marijuana use and decrease production within the state. Furthermore, they hoped that legalizing recreational cannabis would keep people out of jail and stop them from having to sell their drugs for profit.
Voters in Oklahoma overwhelmingly rejected State Question 820, which would have made recreational marijuana legal and placed the state's medical marijuana authority in charge of business regulation. This vote came as Oklahoma's cannabis industry has experienced tremendous growth since 2018 with thousands of growers and dispensaries opening across the state.
Opponents of the measure, particularly those living in rural areas, argued that legalizing marijuana would only lead to an increase in production and diversion to illicit markets. Furthermore, the state drug enforcement agency warned it could have a chilling effect on medical marijuana growers and operators.
Supporters of the measure argued that it would protect children and allow those with past convictions for certain marijuana offenses to petition courts for expungement of their criminal records. Furthermore, they noted the need for new tax revenue generated from recreational sales as a major advantage of passing this law.
According to campaign finance disclosures filed with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Yes on 820, OKC Sensible Marijuana Laws and Protect Our Kids No on 820 campaigns spent an estimated $5.1 million through Tuesday. Unlike candidate campaigns, there are no limits on contributions or expenditures for state questions.
At a Tuesday evening news conference, Michelle Tilley, campaign manager for Yes on 820, expressed her optimism that California will eventually legalize marijuana. Despite being rejected, her campaign will continue to pursue other measures to decriminalize cannabis use.
The state has recently created a low entry barrier into the medical marijuana program, allowing thousands of businesses to join it. This has resulted in an abundance of cannabis on the market, driving down prices for consumers while increasing competition among growers and dispensary owners.
Oklahoma boasts a large number of licensed marijuana operations, but also home to an abundance of illegal growing and distribution activities. Recently, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (ONB) has uncovered hundreds of MMJ farms linked to organized crime groups engaged in sex trafficking and prostitution.
As of February 8, Oklahoma had 7,078 licensed growers and 2,877 dispensaries operating. As the market becomes saturated, license numbers are expected to decrease over the coming months as competition intensifies. Furthermore, when the current two-year moratorium on commercial licenses ends in August 2024, those numbers could decrease even further.
On Tuesday, Oklahoma voters rejected a state question to legalize recreational marijuana use. Opponents feared it would create an irresponsible society, increase crime and violence, and put children at risk. Governor Kevin Stitt and many Republican legislators opposed the measure which had the support of several law enforcement associations including the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association.
On the final week of the campaign, opponents rallied a diverse coalition of religious leaders, law enforcement officers and public school administrators. They expressed worries that California's medical marijuana program would be overtaken by recreational cannabis sales, potentially cutting tax revenue for schools, health care services and other needs. They further criticized a 15% excise tax on marijuana proposed by supporters which they said could have gone towards funding local governments, court systems, substance abuse treatment centers and the state's general revenue fund instead.
According to last-minute campaign finance reports, the pro-legalization campaign spent $4.9 million to promote their initiative against $219,000 against. By the end of the campaign, they had collected more than 500,000 signatures.
Supporters of the measure have praised it as an effective means to decriminalize marijuana, expunge low-level convictions and create a process for people to petition to have their sentences reduced or thrown out. Unfortunately, those arrested for marijuana-related offenses often end up in prison with few rights to appeal their sentences.
Michelle Tilley, campaign manager for Yes on 820 Oklahomans for Sensible Marjuana Laws, spoke at the "Yes on 820" watch party in downtown Oklahoma City Tuesday night. According to an analysis conducted recently, more than 60,000 Oklahomans with marijuana-related convictions or unexpunged dismissals on their records--leading both to frustration among these individuals and the state's medical community--face a high rate of incarceration due to these disparities.
In 2022, a campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in Oklahoma raised approximately $3.2 million by year-end. Nearly all of that money was spent on gathering signatures and placing the issue on the ballot; however, by the time two thirds of precincts had been counted, AP reported that with more than 20 points divided against it.
On Tuesday, Oklahoma voters rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana. This outcome came as an unexpected shock to many - particularly in a state where faith leaders, law enforcement and most of the state's GOP leadership had strongly opposed legalization.
Supporters of recreational cannabis argue that it will generate tax revenue for schools, health care and local governments. Furthermore, it helps reduce marijuana addiction, boost employment opportunities and reduce criminal justice costs.
Critics of the proposal contend it will create a dangerous market, making it harder for law enforcement to enforce existing regulations. Furthermore, they worry that leaving with an abundance of marijuana in the state could be resold on the black market or diverted to illegal businesses.
In Oklahoma, approximately 60,000 individuals with low-level marijuana convictions on their records face obstacles to housing and other opportunities. A state question proposed allowing those with past marijuana convictions the option of seeking re-sentencing and expungement of their records.
Opponents of this ballot measure worry that its passage could result in an uptick of arrests and imprisonment for marijuana offenses. Attorney Taylor Thompson, who works with medical marijuana patients, says she often sees clients arrested and imprisoned due to previous charges of low-level drug offenses.
She believes people shouldn't have to endure such a life-altering event as being arrested for smoking marijuana. Instead, the state should focus on improving its criminal justice system in order to prevent these individuals from being arrested in the first place.
Another key concern is that legalizing recreational cannabis will put undue strain on the existing medical program. California's lax regulation, which allows nearly 12,000 licensed businesses to operate, has been accused of oversaturating the market and driving down prices for consumers.
The state's legal cannabis industry has blossomed to include tens of thousands of marijuana farmers, cultivators and processors. It is an expanding market that continues to attract more investors.