July 18, 2018: Julie Ezell, the general counsel for the Oklahoma State Health Department, has resigned from the position and faces criminal charges for falsely reporting a crime. In an apparent attempt to paint the pro-legalization camp in a negative light, she created fictitious emails full of threats that she sent to herself. She then reported the threats to the authorities, saying that cannabis advocates made the threats due to her efforts to limit the medical cannabis initiative that the voters just approved by a double-digit margin. The District Court charged her with two felonies and one misdemeanor.
Likewise, the state Attorney General, Mike Hunter, wrote a letter to the Health Commissioner admonishing his Board for making changes to the medical cannabis law, including its prohibition on several consumption methods. Per the letter, "I have no doubt that the Board in good faith sought to regulate marijuana in a manner it believed would be promote the health and safety of Oklahomans. However, in so doing, the Board made policy judgments not authorized by statute. Those policy judgments are the prerogative of the Legislature and the People."
June 26, 2018: Oklahoma legalized medical cannabis today, becoming the 30th U.S. state to do so.
The Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, or State Question 788, appeared on the ballot as part of the primary election, and Sooner State voters approved legalization 56 to 43. While the final tally might change slightly, the initiative solidly passed by approximately 13 points. Some city and state officials said they'll fight the outcome to make sure the prohibition on medical cannabis remains.
The fight for medical cannabis had its twists and turns in Tornado Alley, including a scripture-packed mailer that accused Oklahoma Republican James Lankford of "bearing false witness" against cannabis. The former Baptist preacher responded on AM 1170 by saying, "I have a real problem with people saying, 'The best thing we can do for our kids is to get their parents and grandparents to smoke more marijuana." Ironically, the host then said his mom currently benefits from medical cannabis and asked, "Everybody's pretty much for medical marijuana—who can be against helping people?" Lankford said "sure" but then offered a limited definition that only seemed to include cannabidiol (CBD).
Another fun twist came from the Associated Press: The news agency posted its first election-day update on SQ788 at exactly 4:20 p.m. We see you, AP! The entire six-line post focused on why Oklahomans were voting for legalization.
November 8, 2016: With 58 percent of the vote, State Question 780 turned all offenses for cannabis possession into misdemeanors. Still, a person can get up to one year in jail for a first-time offense.
What's Past Is Prologue
Oklahoma has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the harshest states in the country on drug laws. Possession of less than an ounce could get you one to 10 years in prison, depending on first or second offense, and intent to sell could get you life.
One case illustrates the extremities to which the law can be taken. In 1992, Larry Jackson, a small-time criminal with a lengthy record, was arrested in a friend’s apartment in Tulsa. As he was being arrested, the police officer noticed something by his foot. The officer’s vision was undoubtedly sharp, for the amount on the floor was .16 grams. He was booked with felony possession of marijuana and handed a life sentence.
Not much has changed in the quarter century since his arrest, and Oklahomans still face some of the harshest drug laws in the country. Though Oklahoma is clearly one of the most conservative states in the union, recent efforts to gather signatures to put medical marijuana (MMJ) on the ballot fell well short of the necessary signatures despite the fact that a 2013 survey by SoonerPoll.com found that 71 percent of respondents favored legalization of physician-authorized MMJ for patients suffering from certain conditions.
The 2015 legislative session found some progress with a bill by Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City) and Sen. Brian Crain (R-Tulsa) signed in to law by Gov. Mary Fallin in 2015 that allows limited CBD-oil trials for minors suffering from certain types of seizures. The new law gives them access to the high-cannabidiol (CBD), low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil under medical supervision.
"I wish I could tell you this is going to save my niece,” Rep. Echols said, according to KFOR News. “I don't know if it is, I don't know if it's not, but I know it's helped a lot of kids, and I know it could help children here in Oklahoma. The only thing that kills this bill is people not willing to look at what it really is. This is not a medical marijuana bill.”
Named Katie and Cayman’s Law after a friend and relative of the bill’s authors who suffer from seizures, House Bill 2154 is the first step in Oklahoma toward a bigger conversation on the value of MMJ.
“This bill will help get sick children potentially life-changing medicine,” said Fallin in a statement. “By crafting the legislation in a way that allows for tightly controlled medical studies, we can ensure we are researching possible treatments in a responsible and scientific way."
Fallin, however, has expressed repeatedly she in no way supports full legalization of cannabis.
“The CBD oil we are studying is a non-intoxicating derivative of marijuana,” said Fallin. “It is not marijuana, and it is not anything that can make you ‘high.’ This law has been narrowly crafted to support highly supervised medical trials for children with debilitating seizures.”
“It is not a first step towards legalizing marijuana, and I will never support the legalization of marijuana in Oklahoma,” Fallin added.
For now, drug-reform advocates like Oklahoma City attorney Chad Moody are fighting Oklahoma’s antiquated cannabis laws that unfairly lock up non-violent drug offenders.
“There’s a huge amount of money motivating this, from grants, from private prisons, from politicians with their hands out here and there. It’s the 21st-century slave trade,” said Moody, per the OK Gazette. “Even if you want to maintain that marijuana does some harm, the good done by it so outweighs the harm. Prohibition does damn near all the harm involved in marijuana. Most of what has been said about the deleterious effects of marijuana has been propaganda in the drug war.”
While there are glimmers of hope in the Sooner State, it may be years before possession of cannabis is decriminalized and access to MMJ is available for those who need it, and even longer for full legalization.
Photo credit: Unsplash.