Advocates for medical marijuana in Oklahoma were riding high after collecting nearly 66,000 signatures to put State Question 788 up for a vote of the people. SQ 788 would allow people to apply for a medical marijuana license with the recommendation of a doctor, and license holders would be able to possess useable marijuana and plants in generous quantities. On the spectrum of state medical marijuana laws, SQ 788 falls on the more permissive end, with relatively few restrictions on how marijuana is grown and distributed and who qualifies to use the drug.
Concerns about this permissiveness prompted some legislators to introduce bills this session that would reduce the scope of medical marijuana in Oklahoma. While some changes to the law are advisable, especially to create a devoted regulatory body and give the state more time to implement SQ 788, one bill – SB 1120 – would make the measure unrecognizable before voters even have a chance to express their opinion on the matter.
SB 1120 would set up one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country
On all fronts, SQ 788 would set up a relatively relaxed medical marijuana regulatory system. The language does not specify which conditions qualify for a medical marijuana license; among the 29 states that have legalized the drug, only California shares that attribute. The measure also puts few restrictions on dispensaries aside from keeping them 1,000 feet from schools.
“The first offense of providing medical marijuana to a person who does not have a prescription includes a mandatory minimum of one year in prison and up to five years. Given our state’s struggle to reduce its prison population, this would be a giant leap in the wrong direction.”
This session, Sen. Ervin Yen (R-Oklahoma City) introduced SB 1120, a proposal that would drastically change SQ 788 as it’s written. Only people who are terminally ill or have one of four serious conditions would qualify for a license, and patients would be able to possess only a 30-day supply of the amount prescribed by their doctor. By comparison, Alaska, which has the most restrictive laws on obtaining medical marijuana according to a 2014 study, has a list of eight conditions that qualify for a prescription.
The bill also creates much stricter regulations on licensing and documentation and lays out specific testing and certification requirements for those growing, transporting, and dispensing marijuana – contrary to SQ 788’s language.
Most concerning is the harsh punishment that the bill would impose on people convicted of “criminal diversion of medical marijuana.” The first offense of providing medical marijuana to a person who does not have a prescription includes a mandatory minimum of one year in prison and up to five years. Given our state’s struggle to reduce its prison population, this would be a giant leap in the wrong direction.
SB 1120 failed its first vote in the Senate, but was reconsidered and passed narrowly. It has been assigned to the House Judiciary committee.
HB 3468 would create an agency to produce regulations on a realistic timeline
Legislators looking for a measured approach to implementing and regulating medical marijuana should instead look to HB 3468. The proposal by Rep. John Paul Jordan (R-Yukon) would create an Oklahoma Cannabis Commission to regulate the state’s medical marijuana system, taking that responsibility from the embattled Department of Health. It would lengthen the deadline to set up regulatory processes from the very aggressive 30 days after passage set by SQ 788 to 120 days.
HB 3468 would also create an Oklahoma Cannabis Commission Governing Board within the Department of Health to make important implementation decisions until the permanent Commission is put into place. The Governing Board would consist of physicians, lawyers, law enforcement, and others with important perspectives on the regulatory questions raised by medical marijuana.
The Oklahoma Cannabis Commission would be given a considerable amount of power to regulate the industry and to propose statutory changes to the state’s medical marijuana laws. This follows the example of many other states, including our neighbors in Arkansas. Members would be proposed by the Attorney General, legislative leaders, and government agencies, and all would be approved by the Governor. With that makeup, it’s likely that the Commission would be a cautious but accountable governing body.
HB 3468 passed out of the House and awaits committee assignment in the Senate.
SB 1175 would require a database of medical marijuana users and dispensaries
Though it has no direct impact on who can use or dispense medical marijuana, another bill – SB 1175 – would still make significant changes to the proposal. The bill would add medical marijuana to a list of dangerous substances, including opiates and codeine, that are tracked in a central database by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics.
By contrast, SQ 788 directs the Department of Health to keep very limited records on license holders: their photo, the expiration date of the license, the county where the license was issued, and an identification number. While creating a database of medical marijuana prescribers, dispensaries, and recipients may help to identify and prevent the unaccountable, high-volume prescribers seen in other states, it could also potentially be co-opted by a federal Justice Department that has signaled it wants to come after marijuana even where it has been legalized at the state level.
Oklahoma needs a well-functioning regulatory agency for medical marijuana
Many important issues must be carefully considered as a state establishes its medical marijuana regime, and setting up the Oklahoma Cannabis Commission through HB 3468 is a smart way to prepare for the possible passage of SQ 788. It invests wide regulatory power in a mostly balanced commission to closely study and adjust the state’s medical marijuana system should SQ 788 pass.
This task is better left to a dedicated agency rather than the restrictive and punitive approach dictated by SB 1120 and implied by SB 1175. Polling suggests SQ 788 has strong support across the state. Legislators should resist the temptation to preempt the measure with a drastic rewrite before voters have a chance to weigh in.