The story of the “yes” vote on Oklahoma’s medical marijuana ballot measure was one of grassroots versus big money. And in this round, David beat Goliath.
On June 26, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 788 to legalize use, possession and cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes by a sizable margin of 57.9 percent to 43.1 percent.
New campaign finance reports received this week by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission revealed that the two “No” political action committees (PACs) heavily outraised and outspent the two “Yes” PACs.
Supporters took in just $176,577.99 in cash donations, compared to the $1,260,600.00 raised by opponents.
The pro-PACs had a secret weapon: Additional in-kind contributions of $133,684. The main “No” PAC didn’t report a single dollar of in-kind donations, but even counting donated services, supporters had far fewer resources overall.
With 507,582 “yes” votes and 385,176 “no” votes on Election Day, the “Yes” PACs had to raise only 35 cents in cash donations per vote (or 61 cents per vote, if in-kind donations are included). The “No” PACs raised $3.27 per vote, nearly ten times the amount medical cannabis backers had to take in to get their voters to the polls.
This is a sharp contrast to previous marijuana ballot measure campaigns in other states in which supporters have usually heavily outraised and outspent opponents.
This year in Oklahoma, pro-medical-marijuana forces also received far more individual donations, whereas opponents relied on a smaller number of contributions from monied interests.
The main pro-PAC, Vote Yes On 788, registered on December 7, 2017 and got a head-start on fundraising and campaigning, raising $31,279.82 in the first three months of 2018, half of that in in-kind contributions. Their biggest donor by far was New Health Solutions Oklahoma, with a cash infusion of $130,000 and in-kind donations of legal services, office space, t-shirt printing, printing and fundraisers totaling $90,903.
The Drug Policy Reform Network Of Oklahoma donated $300 to the “Yes” PAC in 2018. The remaining donations were all from individuals. In six months, the committee received $43,735 from 181 individual donors, with an average donation of $242. The largest individual donor gave $2,493.
The “Yes” PAC spent $6,393 in the first three months of 2018 to get out the word about the vote in old-school grassroots efforts including yard signs, flyers, stickers, buttons, shipments to volunteers and a highway sign. From April to the end of June, they spent $165,976 on similar items, and added in professional campaign tactics like surveys, electronic billboards, campaign management, phone banking and radio ads.
The main “No” PAC, SQ 788 Is Not Medical, didn’t even register until May 15, 2018, about 10 weeks before the vote. Their corporate donors contributed $1,181,925 to the losing effort. These included several oil and gas heavy hitters: Newfield Exploration and Devon Energy ($100,000 each), Cimarex Energy Co. ($75,000), ConocoPhillips and Gulfport Energy ($50,000 each), Oge Energy Corp, Chesapeake Energy and Phillips 66 ($25,000 each). Three banks also ponied up: Arvest ($25,000), IBC $20,000) and Bancfirst ($10,000). Communication giant Cox tossed in $25,000.
Non-profit organizations that supported the “No” PAC included the Oklahoma City and Tulsa Chambers of Commerce ($190,000 and $25,000 respectively), the Chickasaw Nation ($100,000) and national prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana ($10,000). The Oklahoma State Medical Association and Hospital Association and also pitched in, to the tune of $75,000 and $25,000, respectively.
Opponents had individual donations from just 14 people totaling $78,550, or an average of $5,611. The largest individual donor, the retired President of Mercedes Benz of Oklahoma, gave $50,000.
The “No” PAC poured more than $100,000 into mailings and over $1 million into media buys of television, print and radio. Given that the media buy included a television ad that said, “State Question 788 is not about medical marijuana… Why could anyone get it without a specific medical condition?” it’s possible that the ad did more to help get out the “Yes” vote from people who support broader reforms. The question did not set limits on physicians as to what qualifying conditions were eligible.
The “Vote Yes on 788” PAC received $35,000 in-kind for web development and social media, and 41,500 people have followed Yes on 788’s Facebook Group.
Neither of the “No” PACs bothered to create a website. SQ 788 Is Not Medical spent $15,000 on social media services, though no Facebook or Twitter accounts seem to exist. The spend included $10,000 to an organization called Student Development Institute, which also runs the Facebook page “Worth the Wait” for an abstinence/chastity ring non-profit.
A small anti-PAC, Oklahomans Against 788, raised $250 in 2018, plus $505.92 in-kind for a P.O. box, copies, office supplies and gas. All of the donations came from the two people who founded the PAC, and all of the expenses went to filing fee to create the PAC, plus bank fees and mileage reimbursement.
Another pro-PAC, Oklahomans For Health SQ 788, registered on November 21, 2017. The group, which helped get the question on the ballot, raised just $250 in 4th quarter 2017 and nothing in 2018.
Following the passage of the ballot measure, its backers were dismayed by the way the Oklahoma State Department of Health took up implementing regulations. The Department initially proposed requiring pharmacists at cannabis dispensaries, banning smokeable products and requiring women patients to take pregnancy tests, which if positive would prevent them from receiving medical cannabis.
Under pressure from supporters, the department last week walked back those restrictions. The director of the Board of Pharmacy was also fired over bribery allegations.
Approval of the medical marijuana ballot initiative marked the second time in recent years that Oklahoma voters surprised state lawmakers and law enforcement by approving a drug policy reform measure. In 2016, they passed state question 780, making possession of any drug a misdemeanor, by a wide margin: 58 percent to 42 percent.
Meanwhile, a group collecting signatures to get state question 797, a full marijuana legalization measure, on the ballot in November says they have reached their goal, though it is unclear for now if a sufficient number of the signatures they have garnered will turn out to be valid.
UN Committee Unexpectedly Withholds Marijuana Scheduling Recommendations
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) was expected to make recommendations about the international legal status of marijuana, which reform advocates hoped would include a call to deschedule the plant and free up member countries to pursue legalization.
But in a surprise twist, a representative from the organization announced that WHO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, would be temporarily withholding the results of its cannabis assessment, even as it released recommendations on an opioid painkiller and synthetic cannabinoids. The marijuana recommendations are now expected to come out in January.
Earlier this year, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) released a pre-review of marijuana that included several positive, evidentiary findings. Cannabis has never caused a fatal overdose, the committee said, and research demonstrates that ingredients in the plant can effectively treat pain and improve sleep, for example.
The pre-review results prompted a more in-depth critical review, one of the final stages before the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) makes a determination about whether marijuana should remain in the most restrictive international drug classification. But on Friday, as observers anxiously awaited that determination, WHO pumped the brakes. The committee said it needed more time “for clearance reasons,” according to the International Drug Policy Consortium.
The @WHO's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence met in November to discuss the scheduling of cannabis and related/other substances.
— IDPC (@IDPCnet) December 7, 2018
“This decision to withhold the results of the critical review of cannabis appears to be politically motivated,” Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and legalization advocate who has pushed for international reform, said in a press release.
“The WHO has been answering many questions about cannabis legalization, which is not within their mandate. I hope the WHO shows courage and stands behind their work on cannabis, findings we expect to be positive based upon recent WHO statements and their other actions today.”
Those other actions include recommending that the opioid painkiller tramadol should not be scheduled under international treaties out of concern that such restrictions would limit access and hurt patients. In August, the committee made a similar recommendation about pure cannabidiol, or CBD, a component of marijuana.
While the critical review of marijuana itself has been postponed, the committee’s recommendations for its international scheduling are still expected to go up for a vote in the CND in March. If the committee does decide to recommend that cannabis be removed from international control, that would have wide-ranging implications for the reform efforts around the world.
In the U.S., the federal government has routinely cited obligations under international treaties to which it is a party as reasons to continue to ban marijuana and its derivatives. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration said in May that CBD doesn’t meet the criteria for federal scheduling at all, but that international treaties obliged it to recommend rescheduling to Schedule V.
“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or if the international controls on CBD change in the future, this recommendation will need to be promptly revisited,” the agency said.
Where Trump’s Pick For Attorney General Stands On Drug Policy
President Donald Trump said on Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr to replace Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.
Barr, who previously served in the position under President George H. W. Bush’s administration, seems less openly hostile to marijuana compared to other potential nominees whose names were floated—like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who pledged to crack down on state-legal cannabis activity during his failed 2016 presidential bid.
That said, he developed a reputation as anti-drug while overseeing harsh enforcement policies under Bush.
….and one of the most highly respected lawyers and legal minds in the Country, he will be a great addition to our team. I look forward to having him join our very successful Administration!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018
The prospective nominee seems to share a worldview with the late president under whom he served. Bush called for “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” to combat drug use and dramatically increased the federal drug control budget to accomplish that goal. In 1992, Barr sanctioned a report that made the “case for more incarceration” as a means to reduce violent crime.
Barr wrote a letter explaining why he was releasing the report, which has now resurfaced as observers attempt to gauge how he will approach drug policy in the 21st century.
“[T]here is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets,” he wrote. “Of course, we cannot incapacitate these criminals unless we build sufficient prison and jail space to house them.”
“Revolving-door justice resulting from inadequate prison and jail space breeds disrespect for the law and places our citizens at risk, unnecessarily, of becoming victims of violent crime.”
He also wrote a letter to lawmakers in 2015 defending the criminal justice system—including mandatory minimum sentences—and encouraging Congress not to bring up a sentencing reform bill.
“It’s hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one,” Michael Collins, director of national drug affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. “Nominating Barr totally undermines Trump’s recent endorsement of sentencing reform.”
“The vast majority of Americans believe the war on drugs needs to be replaced with a health-centered approach. It is critically important that the next Attorney General be committed to defending basic rights and moving away from failed drug war policies. William Barr is a disastrous choice.”
Another window into Barr’s criminal justice perspective comes from 1989, when he wrote a Justice Department memo that authorized the FBI to apprehend suspected fugitives living in other countries and extradite them to the U.S. without first getting permission from the country. The intent of the memo seemed to be to enable the U.S. to more easily capture international drug traffickers.
In 2002, Barr compared drug trafficking to terrorism and described the drug war as the “biggest frustration” he faced under Bush. The administration “did a very good job putting in place the building blocks for intelligence building and international cooperation, but we never tightened the noose,” he said.
Interestingly, as The Washington Post reported, Barr would be heading up a department where his daughter, Mary Daly, also works. Daly is the director of opioid enforcement and prevention efforts in the deputy attorney general’s office, and she’s established herself as an advocate for tougher criminal enforcement aimed at driving out the opioid epidemic.
Today’s drug policy landscape is a lot different than it was in the early 1990s, though, and it’s yet to be seen how Barr, if confirmed by the Senate, will navigate conflicting state and federal marijuana laws. He’ll also be inheriting a Justice Department that no longer operates under an Obama-era policy of general non-intervention, after Sessions moved this year to rescind the so-called Cole memo that provided guidance on federal cannabis enforcement.
But for advocates, at least it’s not the guy who said “good people don’t smoke marijuana” anymore and it won’t be one who campaigned for president saying he’d enforce federal prohibition in legal states, either.
Marijuana Bills Are Already Being Pre-Filed For 2019 Legislative Sessions
If you thought 2018 was a big year for marijuana, gear up for 2019. Before the next legislative session has even started, lawmakers in at least four states have already pre-filed a wide range of cannabis reform bills.
In Missouri, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative during last month’s midterm election, a state lawmaker has already drafted a piece of legislation that would legalize cannabis for adult-use—though it would not establish a retail sales system. Instead, adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
At least one marijuana decriminalization bill will be on the table in Virginia next year. The legislation would reduce the penalty for simple possession from a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum of a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail to a civil penalty punishable by a $50 fine for first-time offenders, $100 for second-time offenders and $250 for subsequent offenses.
Marijuana Moment is currently tracking more than 900 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
Down in Texas, lawmakers in the state House and Senate have already pre-filed no fewer than 12 marijuana-related bills. The legislative proposals range from constitutional amendments to fully legalize and regulate cannabis to simple decriminalization policies to lessen penalties for low-level possession.
Finally, in Nevada, where cannabis is legal for adults, lawmakers have introduced a flurry of what are called “bill draft requests” that relate to marijuana. Proposals to revise cannabis tax policies, create a state bank that could potentially service the legal industry and regulate hemp cultivation—among several others—could be taken up by the state legislature next year.
While the pre-filing process has already started in most states, there’s still time and it’s possible that more cannabis legislation will be introduced for consideration in coming days and weeks prior to the formal start of 2019 legislative sessions.