Oklahoma voters on Tuesday rejected the legalization of recreational marijuana, following a late blitz of opposition from faith leaders, law enforcement and prosecutors.
Oklahoma would have become the 22nd state to legalize adult use of cannabis and join conservative states like Montana and Missouri that have approved similar proposals in recent years. Many conservative states have also rejected the idea, including Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota last year.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and many of the state’s GOP legislators, including nearly every Republican senator, opposed the idea. Former Republican Gov. Frank Keating, an ex-FBI agent, and Terri White, the former head of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, led the "no" campaign.
"We’re pleased the voters have spoken," said Pat McFerron, a Republican political strategist who ran the opposition campaign. "We think this sends a clear signal that voters are not happy with the recreational nature of our medicinal system. We also think it shows voters recognize the criminal aspects, as well as the need for addressing mental health needs of the state."
Oklahoma voters already approved medical marijuana in 2018 by 14 percentage points and the state has one of the most liberal programs in the country, with more than 2,800 licensed dispensaries and roughly 10% of the state’s adult population having a medical license to buy and consume cannabis.
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On Tuesday's legalization question, the "no" side was outspent more than 20-to-1, with supporters of the initiative spending more than $4.9 million, compared to about $219,000 against, last-minute campaign finance reports show.
State Question 820, the result of a signature gathering drive last year, was the only item on the statewide ballot, and early results showed heavy opposition in rural areas.
"Oklahoma is a law and order state," Stitt said in a statement after Tuesday's vote. "I remain committed to protecting Oklahomans and my administration will continue to hold bad actors accountable and crack down on illegal marijuana operations in our state."
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The proposal, if passed, would have allowed anyone over the age of 21 to purchase and possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, plus concentrates and marijuana-infused products. Recreational sales would have been subjected to a 15% excise tax on top of the standard sales tax. The excise tax would be used to help fund local municipalities, the court system, public schools, substance abuse treatment and the state’s general revenue fund.
The prospect of having more Oklahomans smoking anything, including marijuana, didn't sit well with Mark Grossman, an attorney who voted against the proposal Tuesday at the Crown Heights Christian Church in Oklahoma City.
"I was a no vote because I'm against smoking," Grossman said. "Tobacco smoking was a huge problem for my family."
The low barriers for entry into Oklahoma's medical marijuana industry has led to a flood of growers, processors and dispensary operators competing for a limited number of customers. Supporters had hoped the state's marijuana industry would be buoyed by a rush of out-of-state customers, particularly from Texas, which has close to 8 million people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area just a little more than an hour drive from the Oklahoma border.
Michelle Tilley, campaign director for Yes on 820, said despite Tuesday's result, full marijuana legalization was inevitable. She noted that almost 400,000 Oklahomans already use marijuana legally and "many thousands more" use it illegally.
"A two-tiered system, where one group of Oklahomans is free to use this product and the other is treated like criminals does not make logical sense," she said in a statement.