Oklahoma's relationship with cannabis has a long and complex history, marked by shifting attitudes, legislation, and enforcement. From its early use in Native American medicine to its criminalization during the early 20th century, cannabis has played a significant role in shaping the social and political landscape of the state.
In recent years, Oklahoma has emerged as one of the most progressive states in the country when it comes to cannabis legalization, with a thriving medical marijuana program and some of the most permissive laws regarding adult-use cannabis possession and cultivation. To fully understand the current state of cannabis in Oklahoma, it's important to examine the twists and turns of its past.
Cannabis has a long history of medicinal use among Native American tribes, including those in Oklahoma. Some tribes have used cannabis in traditional medicine for centuries, long before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. The plant was often used to treat a variety of ailments, such as pain, inflammation, and gastrointestinal issues.
For example, the Kiowa tribe used cannabis as a pain reliever and antispasmodic, while the Cherokee tribe used it to treat menstrual cramps and ease childbirth. In many cases, cannabis was prepared as a tea or poultice, and sometimes smoked or inhaled in other forms. Despite the long-standing use of cannabis in Native American medicine, its role and use were suppressed by federal law in the early 20th century.
In the early 1900s, attitudes towards cannabis in Oklahoma were largely shaped by federal efforts to criminalize the plant. As part of the broader "War on Drugs" campaign, cannabis was targeted as a harmful and addictive substance that posed a threat to public health and safety.
These views were reinforced by a number of factors, including sensationalist media coverage of drug-related crimes, racial and ethnic stereotypes linking cannabis use to non-white communities, and lobbying by anti-drug groups and government agencies.
By the 1930s, Oklahoma had implemented some of the most restrictive cannabis laws in the country. The state's Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act classified cannabis as a narcotic, and imposed harsh penalties for its possession, sale, or use. These laws were reinforced in subsequent years, with the state's criminal code increasing penalties for cannabis offenses in 1957.
Throughout the mid-20th century, cannabis continued to be viewed as a dangerous and illicit substance in Oklahoma, and was subject to strict enforcement by law enforcement agencies. It was not until the late 20th and early 21st century that attitudes towards cannabis began to shift, as advocates for medical and recreational cannabis pushed for reform and legalization.
Push for Decriminalization
As the country started to turn the tide in the direction of cannabis legalization, parts of Oklahoma recognized the change and made moves toward progression. In a move made to help conserve law enforcement resources, Oklahoma City Council approved the reduced penalty for possession of small amounts of cannabis. Those found in simple possession now only need to pay a $400 fine and no longer are required to serve jail time.
The decriminalization by Oklahoma City showed the changing sentiments toward cannabis in the state and encouraged cannabis advocates to continue to push for adult cannabis use statewide. In 2022, lawmakers attempted to add Oklahoma State Question 812 to the November ballot, however it did make the cut. The Question would have decriminalized certain offenses related to cannabis and require the immediate release of any offenders of such offenses from jail.
Medical Cannabis Legislation
Oklahoma legalized medical cannabis on June 26, 2018, when voters approved State Question 788 in a ballot initiative. The measure passed with 57% of the vote, making Oklahoma the 30th state in the United States to legalize medical marijuana.
Under the law, patients with a qualifying medical condition can apply for a medical marijuana license from the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA). The list of qualifying conditions includes conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, and chronic pain, among others. The law also allows for licensed dispensaries to sell cannabis products to patients, and allows patients to possess up to three ounces of cannabis on their person and up to eight ounces of cannabis in their residence.
Since the passage of State Question 788, Oklahoma has emerged as one of the most permissive states in the country when it comes to medical cannabis, with a thriving industry of cultivators, processors, and dispensaries.
Final Turn of the Tide
The last push for cannabis in Oklahoma comes in the fight to pass recreational use legislation in the state. In 2022, cannabis advocates pushed to have Oklahoma State Question 820 on the ballot for the general election. The State Question is an initiative petition that would legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 and over, along with decriminalizing cannabis use and possession. However, the Oklahoma Supreme Court denied the addition and said there wasn’t enough time to be able to make an upcoming deadline for mailing overseas and absentee ballots.
Since the question missed the November ballot, there is a planned special election for State Question 820 to take place in March of 2023. While voters in the state wait for election day, groups for and against cannabis legalization are stepping out to make themselves heard.
Those supporting the Yes on 820 Campaign have been working to canvas and spread the word as much as possible before the election takes place in March. The campaign to Vote No on 820 is asking voters to protect the children, stating that legal cannabis is a danger to youth and would exacerbate the crime already created by the existing cannabis industry in the state.
As March looms closer and closer, Oklahoma will be the next state to watch for recreational cannabis use.
So Far, So Good
As Oklahoma waits for recreational cannabis to be legal in the state, its medical cannabis industry continues to thrive. The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority database reported that as of February 2023 there are 11,910 licensed medical cannabis companies in the state. This number includes cannabis growers, dispensaries, processors, transporters, testing labs, waste disposal facilities, education facilities, and research facilities. Knowing how much the medical cannabis industry has grown and continues to grow, gives hope for the potential benefits that could be brought forth by a recreational market as well.
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