Oklahoma legislators seek medical marijuana restrictions, transparency
Some GOP state legislators want to ban billboards advertising medical marijuana, prevent future dispensaries from being located near churches and bring more transparency to the state entity that oversees Oklahoma’s medical marijuana program.
Those legislators have prefiled bills to regulate the state’s fledgling medical marijuana industry, some of which already have medical marijuana supporters up in arms.
However, the legislators who helped pass last year’s “Unity Bill,” a compromise between lawmakers and industry leaders that set up a legal framework for State Question 788, have indicated they don’t want sweeping medical marijuana changes this year.
Senate Bill 1257 by Sen. Mark Allen, R-Spiro, would prohibit medical marijuana from being advertised on billboards anywhere in the state. Allen did not return a call seeking comment, but others have complained about the billboards that have spread to even the most rural parts of the state.
Chip Paul, who wrote the medical marijuana petition Oklahoma voters passed in 2018, said people in the medical marijuana industry have discussed the billboards issue often as business has boomed across the state.
“We all agree that there’s a line there, but what is the appropriate line is debatable,” he said.
A proposal by Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, would prohibit future medical marijuana dispensaries from being located within 1,000 feet of churches or other places of worship. His House Bill 2779 would not apply to current medical marijuana businesses.
The idea came from a local pastor who was worried about how the businesses would influence children attending worship, Olsen said. It’s similar to the reasoning that SQ 788 included language prohibiting dispensaries within 1,000 feet of school entrances, he said.
“We don’t really want children to think that marijuana is the answer to their problems,” he said. "Now, that’s not to dispute what many people, older people say that it has helped their pain. I wouldn’t dispute that for a minute."
The state question very clearly spelled out that dispensaries could not be located near schools, but it did not say anything about churches. People knew what they were voting on, Paul said.
He said lawmakers are just doing their jobs, but predicted these controversial bills are doomed.
Meanwhile, Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, introduced legislation to change how the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority is funded.
Thompson, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, wants to create a new fund for medical marijuana taxes that legislators would use to appropriate funds to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, as they do with state agencies. That tax revenue currently goes directly to the Medical Marijuana Authority.
The Legislature is responsible for oversight of tax dollars, he said.
“We’ll determine what it costs to run the agency, and then we’ll make the distributions,” Thompson said.
The state question spelled out the authority would keep only the portion of state tax revenue from medical marijuana sales needed to fund the authority. Of the remaining revenue, 75% would fund K-12 education and 25% would fund drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
When he wrote the question, Paul said he assumed the Medical Marijuana Authority would need roughly $7 million in funding annually. The state collected about $55 million in tax revenue from medical marijuana last year, more than Paul ever thought possible in the program’s first full year. It’s not clear how much money is going to the authority and how much is going elsewhere, he said.
House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols said the likelihood of the Legislature passing any bills that would totally upend the state's medical marijuana program this year is slim. Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said all medical marijuana bills will go through himself and Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee.
They are eyeing about four to six to medical marijuana changes they want done this year. Fetgatter is working on legislation that would address driving under the influence of marijuana, Echols said.
"Most reasonable people agree if you’re high, you shouldn’t drive," he said. "But most reasonable people also believe if you smoked marijuana or used marijuana three days ago and you’re not high, but it’s still in your system, you shouldn’t get a DUI. We’re working to try to fix that."
They want to make the authority, which is housed under the Oklahoma State Department of Health, a standalone state agency. They're also pushing for the authority to quickly implement portions of the "Unity Bill," like seed-to-sale product tracking, that have not yet been implemented.
Additional marijuana bills were filed leading up to the Thursday deadline to file legislation to be considered during the session that begins Feb. 3.
Whatever legislators do during this year, they should keep in mind the more than 200,000 medical marijuana patients in Oklahoma will be watching, Paul said.
“Like hawks, we watch what they do,” he said.