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.
Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.
At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.
Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.
The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”
He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.
“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”
Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:
“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.
“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”
Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.
Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.
“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”
“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”
The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster for communities of color.
We will legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and invest revenue from legal marijuana back into those communities. pic.twitter.com/x7xrzw1Eu4
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 21, 2019
Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.
After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”
“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota
A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.
Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.
“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.
The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.
Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.
Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.
“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”
Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.
It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.
“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches
With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.
In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”
As I said earlier this year, any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.https://t.co/Y1dOwgHbm2
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) September 20, 2019
The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.
Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.
Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.
While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.
Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.
“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”
“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”
Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”
The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.