The Legalization of Marijuana Is a Huge Step Backward
On Tuesday, Oklahoma slowed down the process of legalizing marijuana across the country by voting against full legalization by more than 20 points in a referendum.
Since 2018, when voters approved medical marijuana by double-digit margins, the state has been called “Tokelahoma.” There are about 12,000 licensed marijuana businesses and almost 400,000 patients in the state (in a state with less than four million residents).
This latest result, though, shows that most people don’t want this industry to grow anymore, which many Oklahomans say is out of control because the police seem to bust a new illegal grow operation every week.
To date, 21 states have made it legal to use marijuana for recreational purposes, and 37 have passed some kind of medical marijuana law. But the product is still against the law at the federal level, which has led to different rules.
Nightly talked to Paul Demko, who is the cannabis editor at POLITICO, about the state of the legalization movement and the growing opposition. This talk has been changed in some ways.
In 2018, Oklahoma passed a referendum to legalize marijuana for medical use. Since then, what has the state learned about weed?
Oklahoma has made the craziest weed market in the world. At first, there were no limits on business licenses, and they only cost $2,500 each. Local governments can’t shut down marijuana businesses like they can in most other states. To join the medical program, you don’t need to meet any requirements, so almost anyone can do it. As a result, there are about 12,000 licensed marijuana businesses in the state, and almost 10% of the people are enrolled in the medical program, which is by far the highest rate in the country.
In the last ten years or so, marijuana has become legal in more and more states. But on Tuesday, the people of Oklahoma said they didn’t want to go any further. Is this a sign of a larger backlash, or are there local factors at play that are unique to Oklahoma’s experience with marijuana so far?
Both sides have good points. Arkansas, South Dakota, and North Dakota all voted against referendums in November. This shows that there is a wider backlash. But legalization continues to spread quickly. Voters in Maryland and Missouri passed adult-use ballot measures in November, and lawmakers in Minnesota, Kansas, and North Carolina, among other places, are working on legalization bills this year.
But there were definitely unusual things going on in Oklahoma that made it very hard for people who wanted to legalize marijuana to do so. In the last two years, there have been dozens of raids on illegal grows across the state, and police say that many of them are linked to organized crime. In November, four people were killed at a weed farm in the middle of nowhere in Kingfisher County. Both the people who were hurt and the person who is thought to have done it was Chinese.
Many Oklahomans think less of the medical program because of all the bad news that keeps coming out about it.
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Tell us about the groups that are working together on both sides of Tuesday’s vote. Which groups and interests were for expansion, and which ones were against it? And are these battle lines similar to ones you might see in those other states that you referenced?
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The group of people who want to legalize drugs is known by campaigns in other states. Yes on 820, an Oklahoma group that supports legalization, was able to get a lot of money from national groups like the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, and New Approach Advocacy Fund, which is a PAC that supports legalization. Strangely, both people who work in the cannabis industry and people who want to legalize it in Oklahoma didn’t support the ballot measure together. This probably made supporters less likely to show up, which hurt the chances of getting the bill passed.
The other side’s campaign was much better organized than what you’ve seen in many states recently. It was led by a former Republican governor, Frank Keating, and a former Democratic health secretary. But what might be even more important is that law enforcement was very fired up and loud about their opposition to the ballot measure. Their message was pretty simple and seemed to be convincing: legalizing marijuana for recreational use will only make the crime problems caused by the medical program a lot worse.
Does that explain why the referendum in 2018 passed pretty easily but the referendum on Tuesday seems to have lost by a huge amount? You said that North Carolina, Minnesota, and Kansas are all thinking about legalization bills right now. How could groups in those states that want to pass laws learn from Oklahoma? How might the other side?
The situation was certainly very different from the 2018 medical marijuana vote. The pitch was pretty simple five years ago: freedom. That was an argument that voters of all political stripes agreed with, and it won by more than 10 points.
This time, people who wanted to legalize drugs had to deal with what had happened in the real world over the past five years. There were too many illegal operations and criminal activities, and people felt that legalization had changed the state, which had been very conservative, in a big way.
Legalization supporters should learn from Oklahoma that the promise of a safe, taxed, and regulated market for a product that millions of Americans already use should be more in line with what actually happens. Many Oklahomans didn’t see that when they looked at how many pot shops have opened up in the last five years. Instead, they saw a business with few rules and a lot of illegal activity.
People who are against legalization will see Oklahoma as their last chance to stop the movement. There has been a feeling for a while that something like national legalization is inevitable. In recent years, the campaigns of the opposition in many states have been poorly funded and not very well put together. This could make them work harder.