The fight to legalize medical marijuana in Oklahoma is shaping up, and reform advocates are confident that the state’s primary election on June 26 will turn out in their favor.
If approved, SQ 788 would provide access to medical cannabis for adults 18 and older. Licensed patients would be able to possess up to three ounces of cannabis on their person, keep eight ounces in their homes and grow up to six plants. It’s a statutory measure, which means the state legislature would be able to amend the law with a simple majority vote in the future.
But part of what’s unique about this battle to legalize medical marijuana in the traditionally red state is the apparently limited campaign funding on the part of opponents. According to financial disclosure statements published on the Oklahoma Ethics Commission website, there are at least four registered political action committees weighing in on the issue: two opposed to legalization and two in favor of reform.
The main opposition group, Oklahomans Against 788, received just over $1,000 in monetary and in-kind contributions during the first quarter of 2018. By contrast, the main pro-legalization group, Vote Yes On 788, earned over $30,000 during the same period. (Vote Yes On 788 also recently received a $100,000 contribution, the chair of the group told Marijuana Moment).
August Rivera, co-chair of Oklahomans Against 788, told Marijuana Moment that his organization was a “grassroots group,” which speaks “directly to the voters of Oklahoma through forums, town halls, etc.” Pressed about the reported financial disparity between Oklahoma groups that support and oppose legalization, Rivera said there was another super PAC, which he did not name, that has “the resources to counter the pro side.”
The politics behind Oklahoma’s legalization initiative
Oklahoma native and founder of the Colorado-based group American Medical Refugees (AMR) Amy Dawn Bourlon-Hilterbran told Marijuana Moment that Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s (R) decision to put the measure before voters during a primary election—when turnout by young people, Democrats and other demographics that are more likely to support marijuana reform has been historically low compared to general elections—was a deliberate attempt to undermine the chances of the measure’s passage.
Frank Grove, chair of Vote Yes on 788 and president of the Drug Policy Reform Network of Oklahoma, told Marijuana Moment that, to an extent, he agreed. But from his perspective, the governor’s decision to prevent a November on legalization was also due to concerns about the overall electoral impact of increased Democratic turnout if marijuana was placed on the state ballot during the critical mid-term election.
According to Ballotpedia, “[a] governor had not selected a date different from the general election for an initiative since 2005.”
Where does support for marijuana reform stand in Oklahoma?
Polling has consistently placed support for medical marijuana legalization among Oklahoma voters around 60 percent. A SoonerPoll released last week, for example, found that 58 percent of voters favored legalization, compared to 30 percent of voters who opposed the initiative.
The pro-legalization advocacy group NORML supports the initiative. Grove also said that Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has cooperated with Vote Yes on 788 to get the initiative before voters.
Matthew Schweich, MPP executive director, told Marijuana Moment in an email that the group is “using its email list and social networks to mobilize our supporters and encourage Oklahomans to approve the initiative.” While most of the group’s monetary resources are currently going toward supporting cannabis initiatives on November ballots in Michigan and Utah, “we do support [Oklahoma’s SQ 788] effort and will do everything we can to help it pass this month,” he said.
Opponents of the legalization initiative include the Oklahoma State Medical Association, the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association and the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, NewsOK reported.
On Thursday, U.S. Senator James Lankford (R-OK) also threw his hat in the ring, joining a coalition of state faith leaders in opposition to the initiative. Here’s what Lankford said in a press release:
“This state question is being sold to Oklahomans as a compassionate medical marijuana bill by outside groups that actually want access to recreational marijuana. Most of us have seen first-hand the damage done to families and our communities from recreational marijuana use.”
Rivera, of Oklahomans Against 788, dismissed polling that showed majority support for the state’s medical marijuana legalization initiative in an email.
“Polls said Hillary Clinton was going to win. That is my answer to that.”
He went on to say that his group stood by its opposition out of concern over the impact of “drug abuse” on “children and their families.” He and his co-chair “care about the people of Oklahoma and believe that SQ 788 is written poorly and that could lead to harm,” Rivera said.
For many advocates, however, legalization in Oklahoma has been a long time coming.
“Oklahoma, as a state, would see its first win for its people in a long time,” Grove told Marijuana Moment, commenting on the prospect of 788’s passage. “We have unfortunately been at the bottom of a lot of lists in the United States—and just to be 30th or 31st [to legalize marijuana] would be a big win.”
“Not only that, but just the industry it’ll bring to Oklahoma, the health improvements for people in this state—we have a fairly unhealthy population—so there’s a lot of advantages obviously of the passage of 788. But from my perspective, I think the biggest one is that it will inspire people [nationwide].”
Several other states have marijuana measures on their November general election ballots this year.
Marijuana Policy Project Welcomes New Executive Director
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the nation’s best-funded cannabis advocacy group, has named long-time social justice reform advocate Steve Hawkins as its next executive director.
Hawkins, who previously served as the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and executive vice president of the NAACP, will assume responsibility for MPP’s national legalization advocacy efforts just months before a number of states vote to enact their own legal systems.
The decision was made after a “months-long candidate search that included several exceptionally qualified candidates,” MPP said in a press release.
“We are still battling the effects of decades of anti-marijuana legislation and propaganda in this country,” Hawkins told Marijuana Moment. “Huge strides have been made when it comes to setting the record straight, but our work is far from over and there is still a lot of misinformation out there that needs to be addressed.”
“Fundraising and maintaining momentum is also a core challenge for the movement, which is in some ways a victim of its own success. Thanks to the major gains it has made in recent years, many people think legalization is inevitable and that their donations are no longer needed or that they don’t need to take the time to write their elected officials. These laws are not going to change themselves and there is more need than ever for resources and engagement to support federal and state-level reform efforts.”
Hawkins’s experience running successful criminal justice reform campaigns—including a bipartisan effort to end capital punishment for juveniles during his time at the NCADP—made him an apt candidate to spearhead the fight to end prohibition, Troy Dayton, chair of MPP’s board of directors, said in a statement.
“Steve has a strong track record in the field of criminal justice reform, and he knows how to build a movement toward meaningful social change,” Dayton said. “We were not only impressed by his expertise and experience, but also his strong convictions regarding the injustice of marijuana prohibition.”
“The country is moving in the right direction on marijuana policy, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Hawkins also previously held leadership positions at Amnesty International and the Coalition for Public Safety.
He told Marijuana Moment that his three decades of experience “defending civil and human rights” has informed his belief that we should “bring an end to marijuana prohibition, which has had a hugely detrimental impact, especially to communities of color,” and that we should “replace it with a more sensible system of regulation.”
“I also believe it is critical we ensure those populations that were so negatively impacted by prohibition are able to participate in and experience the positive impacts of such a regulated system.”
At MPP, Hawkins will succeed Rob Kampia, who late last year left the organization he founded in 1995 to start a for-profit cannabis policy consulting firm called the Marijuana Leadership Campaign. Kampia’s departure was announced shortly after sexual misconduct allegations against him resurfaced amid the #MeToo movement.
Kampia offered some words of advice for the next person to occupy his former seat in a phone interview with Marijuana Moment:
“View yourself as a fundraiser who has to engage in transactional fundraising with the marijuana industry in part, and view yourself as needing to come up with a smart, strategic plan for lobbying in state legislatures rather than doing ballot initiatives where no one else is going to touch it. Do not view yourself as a spokesperson.”
Or in other words, less of a focus on talk, and more on action.
MPP named Matthew Schweich as the interim executive director while the group scouted for a replacement. Scweich will now serve as MPP’s deputy director overseeing marijuana reform initiatives in Michigan and Utah.
In a statement, MPP board member Joby Pritzker said Schweich “provided critical leadership during a challenging transition period for MPP.”
“He maintained the effectiveness of our advocacy operations, managed our fundraising efforts, and oversaw ballot initiative campaigns in multiple states, while at the same time leading our staff and assisting the board with the executive director search.”
The past few years have seen a number of leadership changeups at national pro-legalization groups.
NORML brought on Erik Altieri as executive director in 2016 after Allen St. Pierre left the organization following 11 years of service. And last year, the Drug Policy Alliance announced that it had hired Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, who worked on international and domestic drug policies issues for 13 years at the Human Rights Watch, as the new executive director to replace retiring founder Ethan Nadelmann.
While the objective at all of these groups—promoting equitable drug policy reform in the United States—has remained the same, the nature of the movement has evolved. A majority of states have now legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, and though state-level reform efforts continue, calls for change at the federal level are increasingly resonant.
That is to say, these new executive directors will face a different set of challenges than their predecessors did.
Photo courtesy of Beloit College.
UN Launches First-Ever Full Review Of Marijuana’s Status Under International Law
For the first time ever, the United Nations (UN) is launching an in-depth review of whether marijuana is properly classified under international drug treaties.
In a related development, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that cannabidiol (CBD), a compound in marijuana that is increasingly used for medical purposes, does not warrant being controlled under the global agreements.
“The Committee recommended that preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled within the International Drug Control Conventions,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote in a letter announcing the moves. “The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a Critical Review” of marijuana, hashish, cannabis extracts and THC.
That broader review is set for November, and follows the results of an initial pre-review conducted by WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) in June.
“A pre-review is the first step of the ECDD’s assessment process, where it is determined whether there is enough robust scientific information to proceed to the next step, called a critical review,” an explanatory document accompanying the new letter reads. “This initial evaluation is also an opportunity to identify gaps in the available scientific data. A critical review is carried out when there is sufficient scientific evidence to allow the ECDD to make informed an recommendation that the substance be placed under international control, or if its level of control should be changed.”
The reviews include analyses of the chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, epidemiology and therapeutic use of the substances.
If the UN ultimately decides to change marijuana’s status under international law, it would trigger a review on U.S. scheduling, according to provisions of the Controlled Substances Act.
“Thankfully the World Health Organization has accepted the challenge of evaluating the placement of cannabis in the 1962 Single Convention treaty,” Michael Krawitz of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access told Marijuana Moment. “Cannabis placement in the treaty was done in the absence of scientific evaluation and has provided the basis for a moral campaign against drugs by the USA for many decades. Since our work on medical access to cannabis has been based upon scientific inquiry we know that any rational assessment of the evidence leads the observer to understand cannabis indeed has proven medicinal value and, compared to other medicines, has profoundly fewer negative side effects.”
Here’s what the UN experts have determined so far:
“There are no case reports of abuse or dependence relating to the use of pure CBD. No public health problems have been associated with CBD use,” an annex attached to Ghebreyesus’s letter reads, noting that research has shown it to be effective in treating epilepsy. “CBD has been found to be generally well tolerated with a good safety profile.”
“Cannabidiol (CBD) is not specifically listed in the schedules of the 1961, 1971 or 1988 United Nations International Drug Control Conventions… There is no evidence that CBD as a substance is liable to similar abuse and similar ill-effects as substances in the 1961 or 1971 Conventions such as cannabis or THC, respectively. The Committee recommended that preparations considered to be pure CBD should not be scheduled.”
When it comes to whole-plant marijuana and resin, ECDD’s pre-review found that while “adverse effects” are possible and that cannabis can cause physical dependence, its current categorization in international treaties “may not appear to be consistent with the criteria.”
“Several countries permit the use of cannabis for the treatment of medical conditions such as back pain, sleep disorders, depression, post-injury pain, and multiple sclerosis,” the document says. “The evidence presented to the Committee did not indicate that cannabis plant and cannabis resin were liable to produce ill-effects similar to these other substances that are in Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The inclusion of cannabis and cannabis resin in Schedule IV may not appear to be consistent with the criteria for Schedule IV.”
“The Committee concluded that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to critical review of cannabis plant and cannabis resin at a future ECDD meeting and explore further the appropriateness of their current scheduling within the 1961 Convention.”
With respect to extracts and tinctures of cannabis, the committee similarly identified health issues associated with consumption, but said “there is limited evidence of a withdrawal syndrome upon abrupt cessation.”
The committee also looked at THC itself and isomers of THC, and recommended that both be subject to critical reviews in November.
Ghebreyesus’s letter is addressed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who will be the ultimate recipient of WHO’s recommendations on cannabis and related extracts and compounds following the review.
Guterres was prime minister of Portugal when that nation decriminalized all drugs, a move he touted last year in an address to the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs. After the critical reviews are in, that body will vote on whether to alter cannabis’s status under the international treaties.
Marijuana Moment Patreon supporters can see the full text of the new WHO letter on cannabis below:
North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Measure Qualifies For November Ballot
North Dakotans voted to approve medical cannabis two years ago, and now they will get the chance to decide on full marijuana legalization this November.
Activists collected a sufficient number of signatures to qualify a ballot measure that would allow adults over 21 to use and grow marijuana, the secretary of state’s office determined on Monday.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.