(Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the role of some of the supporters of the state question.)

Legalize it! Reefer Madness! Outside of the typical cliches on marijuana use, Oklahoma voters will decide next week if the state will join 22 others in the march to legalize the adult use of cannabis under State Question 820.

Supporters want voters to approve an initiative that combines legal adult-use cannabis with criminal justice reforms to address past low-level convictions on marijuana-related offenses. Opponents said full legalization sends the wrong message to children and the state hasn’t done enough to deal with unintended consequences from the passage of medical marijuana in 2018.

The election will be on March 7, with early voting on Thursday and Friday. It’s the first time a state question has been before voters outside of a regular primary or general election since State Question 723 in September 2005.

With no other statewide race on the ballot, it’s unknown how many voters will show up to the polls to vote on SQ 820.

Oklahoma voters approved medical marijuana under State Question 788. That was in the June 2018 election that also featured contested primaries for governor in the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties. SQ 788 attracted the most votes in that primary, with almost 893,000 voters weighing in on medical marijuana. Data from the state Election Board show that almost 20,000 voters just voted on SQ 788 and no other gubernatorial race.

Medical marijuana passed with 57% of the vote in 2018 and attracted voters from across the political spectrum. The initiative was less popular in many rural western and southern counties, and it faced opposition from law enforcement and some medical groups.

This year, backers of SQ 820 are hoping voters will approve a legal consumer market with tradeoffs: Higher taxes than those in the medical market but no patient registration requirements with the government. That would appeal to Oklahomans with a small-government mindset and attract visitors from states without access to legal cannabis. An economic impact report put out by supporters shows an estimated $87 million in additional annual tax revenue through 2028 if SQ 820 passes.

Michelle Tilley, campaign director with Yes on 820, said passage will spur more economic activity and free up law enforcement to chase higher-level drug crimes.

“We have given the state Legislature the power to make it better,” Tilley said at a February forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Tulsa.

Opponents have campaigned on a law-and-order theme and capitalized on several high-profile crimes and busts related to illicit marijuana grows across the state. Law enforcement groups, some Christian denominations and medical and public health associations have argued against passage of the ballot initiative. Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Gentner Drummond, both Republicans, said they will vote no on SQ 820.

Some opponents recognize the need to address the effects of older marijuana convictions but said legalizing marijuana isn’t the answer. They said the Legislature should address those aspects of criminal justice reform, even as they’ve campaigned against other efforts in the past.

“Why do you want to link that with a substance that creates so much havoc, especially with children,” Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said at a League of Women Voters forum in Tulsa in February.

The following was compiled by Epic Text Books from interviews, research and public statements by supporters and opponents.

Would the passage of SQ 820 affect the existing medical marijuana program approved by voters in June 2018?

No. Only the Legislature can make changes to the medical program. Dozens of bills affecting that program are up for consideration in this year’s session.

How have recent statewide elections for adult-use cannabis fared?

Recent elections in other states have been mixed. In November, voters passed adult-use cannabis in Maryland and Missouri; voters in North Dakota and South Dakota rejected it.

Who would regulate the adult-use market for cannabis if SQ 820 passes?

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority became a standalone agency Nov. 1 and would be responsible for regulating businesses operating in the recreational market. There have been discussions among industry groups about asking the Legislature to change the agency’s name if SQ 820 were to pass.

The state question initially limits recreational business licenses to current medical marijuana business license holders in operation for at least a year before the effective date of SQ 820. That prohibition on new businesses would last for two years. Commercial license and renewal fees for the adult-use market could not exceed $2,500.

How long would OMMA have to put rules and regulations from SQ 820 into effect?

It would have until Sept. 3, which is 90 days after the effective date of the law on June 5.

What are the personal-use protections under SQ 820?

Individuals 21 and older can have one ounce (28 grams) or less of marijuana, 8 grams or less of marijuana concentrate and/or 8 grams of marijuana in infused or edible products. They can also grow up to six mature marijuana plants and six marijuana seedlings at home, but only if they are out of public sight.

What does one ounce of marijuana look like?

You can’t really tell without using a scale, because it depends on the density of the flower. Generally, you can fill a plastic sandwich bag to the top and it comes close to an ounce of marijuana. Marijuana concentrate can take several forms, including liquid, chunks or goo.

What would SQ 820 do to address past marijuana-related crimes?

The ballot initiative sets up a process for older marijuana convictions to be reversed, resentenced or dismissed. Courts must approve such expungements unless there’s a risk to public safety.

Backers of SQ 820 said marijuana enforcement efforts for decades have disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities, as well as rural white communities. Between 50,000 and 100,000 Oklahomans have past marijuana convictions that affect their ability to rent or buy housing, apply for jobs or get student loans. They said the unemployment rate for Oklahomans who have past convictions is five times the state average.

What are the penalties for violating the personal-use provisions under SQ 820?

A civil fine of $250 or lower would be levied for having plants in view of the public. Smoking or vaping marijuana in a public place where it’s prohibited would carry a civil fine of $25 or lower. Law enforcement could not detain or arrest people for smoking or vaping in a public place. Landlords could not bar tenants from using or possessing marijuana, although they can prohibit smoking marijuana.

Adults 21 and older who possess, produce or transport no more than twice the limits of personal use products could face civil fines of $200 or less and forfeiture of the product. Eight hours of drug education or counseling could take the place of the fine.

What are the punishments for underage age use or possession of cannabis under SQ 820?

A civil fine of $100 or lower and confiscation of the marijuana. The fine could be waived if the person completes four hours of drug education or counseling.

What ID requirements are there for adult-use purchases of cannabis?

Customers would only need to show identification to verify that they are 21 or older. Retailers could not keep personally-identifiable information about any adult-use purchase for more than 60 days without the consumer’s permission.

How would adult-use cannabis sales be taxed?

Essentially, excise taxes would be double those on medical marijuana products. A state excise tax of 15% would be in addition to state and local sales taxes, which in most places would total around 10% depending on the local government sales tax rate. (Medical marijuana has a 7% excise tax in addition to state and local sales taxes.)

An employee is seen checking the tracking tag on a marijuana plant at Apothecary Extracts grow site in Beggs. (Whitney Bryen/Epic Text Books)

Where would the tax revenue from adult-use sales go?

Sales tax revenue would go to the state and local governments. Money from the excise tax would first go to OMMA for administrative and regulatory costs. Any excess would be split among public school grants for programs for at-risk students and after-school enrichment activities (30%); the state’s general revenue fund (30%); drug-treatment grants (20%); local governments (10%); and state courts (10%).

How much money has been raised to support or oppose SQ 820?

There are no limits on campaign contributions or spending for state questions.

Yes on 820-Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws had $3.23 million in contributions in its year-end report through Dec. 31. Organizers said most of that was spent on getting the initiative through the petition process and to a statewide ballot. The group said it has spent $790,000 in 2023 on TV commercials, digital ads, canvassing materials and mailers, according to campaign reports filed Monday.

Protect Our Kids No 820 filed its organizational papers on Jan. 31. Its most recent report indicates contributions of about $200,000, according to campaign officials.

Which groups are supporting SQ 820?

Philanthropic groups that have funded criminal justice reform efforts have donated or endorsed the SQ 820 campaign, including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, ACLU Oklahoma and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. Others include Norml, the national group that backs reforming marijuana laws, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1000 and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Several business groups active in the medical marijuana industry, including the Oklahoma Cannabis Industry Association and local dispensary chains, have endorsed the effort, too.

Which groups are opposed to SQ 820?

Several groups affiliated with law enforcement, business groups and churches have come out against SQ 820, including the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association, Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, State Chamber of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association and Oklahoma Faith Leaders.

National medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have issued public policy statements in opposition to commercial, adult-use cannabis markets at the state level.

Reporter Lionel Ramos contributed to this report.

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Epic Text Books since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or pmonies@epictextbooks.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies. 


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