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Oklahoma's medical marijuana law would be unique

Oklahoma will become a groundbreaking pioneer if voters approve state-sanctioned medical marijuana June 26.

It would become the first state to initiate a medical marijuana program without listing specific ailments for which doctors could authorize marijuana for their patients.

The issue will be presented to voters as the result of initiative petition signed by 67,801 Okahomans and presented to state officials in August 2016.

Thirty other states have previously passed laws authorizing medical marijuana, but all listed qualifying conditions.

"There are no qualifying conditions," Oklahoma's proposed law states.

That key provision is cause for excitement among pro-medical marijuana forces, but cause for concern among detractors.

Anti-State Question 788 forces, including the Oklahoma State Medical Association, claim that for all practical purposes Oklahoma will become like nine states that have approved recreational marijuana if the ballot measure passes. They contend the medical marijuana language is a ploy to garner votes and create an air of legitimacy.

"I think this has been left so liberally open that it's so transparent that this is a recreational shell bill," said Dr. Kevin Taubman, immediate past-president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association and chairman of an opposition group called "SQ 788 is NOT Medical."

"I have a strong opposition to legislation that disguises itself as good health policy, when in reality it no way mirrors anything that is truly medical therapeutics," Taubman said.

Recreational marijuana?

Chip Paul, spokesman for the pro-medical marijuana group Oklahomans for Health, strongly rejects the idea that this is some type of stealth campaign to bring recreational marijuana to Oklahoma.

The "no qualifying conditions" language was included in the state question to deal with an issue that has surfaced in many states that have previously approved medical marijuana, Paul said.

The model in the past has been for states to provide a list of medical conditions for which medical marijuana is to be considered a viable treatment.

The problem is there is no single list upon which the medical community agrees, he said. Some states only recognize a few ailments as qualifying for medical marijuana treatment. Others list dozens.

What has frequently happened with other states is they start out approving just a few medical uses for marijuana. Then their Legislatures find themselves having to repeatedly consider whether to amend their statutes as additional uses are discovered and gain credibility, said Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

For pro-State Question 788 forces, the solution to the problem is to have the law explicitly state that no qualifying conditions are required and leave it up to medical professionals to determine what is best for patients, Paul said.

"Nobody knows what the right list is here, so let's not restrict it," Paul said. "Let's put this tool in the hands of the physicians."

Topic of debate

Whether that would lead to medical marijuana being more widely available in Oklahoma than other medical marijuana states has been the topic of debate.

Paul contends Oklahoma's medical marijuana law actually would be more restrictive than other states.

Paul said it's easy for a doctor to check a box that says a patient has a particular ailment that qualifies for medical marijuana treatment, but in Oklahoma, doctors would be putting their professional reputations on the line.

"Here, he is staking his reputation. He is staking his professional credibility," Paul said.

Opponents acknowledge that many physicians might choose not to recommend medical marijuana for patients or might only make such recommendations under rare circumstances.

However, they predict there will be some physicians who will be willing to recommend medical marijuana for just about anything. They point to Oklahoma's experience with pain clinics and their contribution to Oklahoma's opioid epidemic as a template for what is likely to happen with medical marijuana in the state if State Question 788 is approved.

There are many questions about what rules doctors would be required to follow, said Lyle Kelsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision.

"There are just a lot of unknowns," Kelsey said. "The national meetings that I go to everybody just throws up their hands ... If it passes, I think there is going to be a real urgency to get together and see how we're going to handle this."

Additional legislation

Paul said State Question 788 is only designed to create a framework for medical marijuana in the state and it will need to be fleshed out with what is likely to be hundreds of pages of additional legislation.

Future legislation could resolve some of the concerns being raised by state question opponents, but voters won't know until after the election.

For example, Dr. Taubman said he is concerned about second-hand marijuana smoke.

State Question 788 doesn't contain the same prohibition against smoking in public places as tobacco, so there are questions as to whether smoking medical marijuana would be allowed in places like restaurants, schools and sports arenas.

Paul views that argument as a scare tactic. He noted that a bill that originated in the House last year would have placed the same restrictions on smoking medical marijuana in public places as current laws dealing with tobacco. Paul said his group supported that bill and would like to see something very similar adopted. Other states with medical marijuana have similar restrictions, he said.

State Question 788 would require patients to get a signed recommendation from an "Oklahoma Board certified physician," but some critics claim that language is so loose that veterinarians, podiatrists, chiropractors, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, medical doctors and osteopaths could all qualify.

"I don't know that this is their intent, but this is the law that we're voting on," said Pat McFerron, campaign consultant for SQ788 is NOT Medical.

That is also something that lawmakers could tighten with additional legislation.

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Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›