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  • Cole Nemes

The ‘Weed Capital of the Midwest’ Votes No For Recreational Marijuana Use

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Oklahomans took to the polls on March 7, 2023, in a special election that offered the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana across the state. Question 820 was a defining moment for Oklahoma and the debate over marijuana in the United States. The results were blunt: 62% of voters opposed legalization, and not a single county in the state had a majority vote in favor of recreational use. Yet, with vehement support coming from both sides, the landside results are staggering, especially considering how quickly the marijuana business in Oklahoma has boomed over the recent years.

Back in 2018, with a 56% vote, medical marijuana was fully legalized and, since then, has sprawled on both the business and social levels at an unprecedented speed. Oklahoma has the most licensed dispensaries of any state, with over 2,300. That’s more than the number of gas stations there are. This coincides with the state's relatively small population, as roughly 10% of the entire state owns a card for medical marijuana, the highest of any state (New Mexico is second but at only a 5% ownership).

But the craze for weed in Oklahoma doesn’t stop there.

Cannabis experts from Leafwell, a research platform dedicated to understanding the effects of medical marijuana, conducted a study throughout 2021 and found, overwhelmingly, that Oklahoma is the “most CBD-obsessed state in America.” The study used search results from the internet to determine what states were the most curious when it came to CBD, THC, and marijuana in general.

So out of the 17 states that only legalized medical marijuana, why did Oklahoma experience such an intense cannabis boom in only four years?

Since 2018, the resources to create a medical marijuana business in Oklahoma have been plentiful, with inexpensive land and building materials being widely available. Relatedly, the restrictions revolving around the medical marijuana business are incredibly delicate, and the ease of obtaining a medical marijuana card has enabled around 400,000 Oklahomans to own one.

Chip Baker, a successful and lifelong businessman in the cannabis sector, noticed the possibilities that can come from both an unregulated weed market and high demands for such products. So in 2020, Baker and his wife bought a swathe of land northeast of Oklahoma City to use for cultivation and production, as they hoped Oklahoma would become “a free-market weed utopia.”

And they were right, at least about the market part.

Revenue from medical marijuana has also been lucrative in Oklahoma since 2018, especially within the fiscal year of 2022-2023, as the profits from the industry have been enormously rewarding so far. In July of 2022, total revenue from the sector accumulated to around $3.8 million. However, in February of 2023, the total revenue was almost $50 million more than it was five months ago ($53.25 million, to be exact). That is an increase of 1,239%--and over half of this profit share comes from sales tax alone.

To say the least, the medical marijuana business in Oklahoma has been incredibly popular and has seen unparalleled growth and success, even though the industry has only existed for four years.

However, another question arises. If the medical marijuana business is so successful, why was the chance of recreational marijuana use profusely shot down?

First, most of Oklahoma’s politicians opposed legalization, including Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, who said marijuana is “bad for young people.” He also promoted the idea of “protecting Oklahoma” regarding recreational marijuana. Ostensibly, he was pleased with the results of the election. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond was also satisfied with the results, stating he is “proud of Oklahomans” for voting against the continuation of “organized crime.”

Citizens who favor legalization are also outspoken, with their voices and wallets. The ‘Yes’ campaign outspent the ‘No’ campaign by more than $4 million to try and convince Oklahoman voters to support the freedom of recreational marijuana, but more importantly, to understand the criminal justice reform it would provide. Yet, after the polls closed and the outcome was known, they reacted with silence and few words to quote.

The most important factor in understanding why Oklahomans voted ‘No’ has to do with where the support for recreational marijuana was located. Most of the retail licenses for medical marijuana in Oklahoma are situated in Oklahoma City –Oklahoma’s capital and largest city–, which accounts for the same amount of licenses as the next four cities combined. However, along with Tulsa, which has the second most retail licenses, those cities host only 26.3% of the entire Oklahoma population.

The centralization of recreational marijuana licenses partially explains the outcome of the election, as the places with the most support became a minority when compared to what the state voted overall. However, that is not the entire story, as other factors contribute to how the election results came to be. If you include the greater metropolitan areas of both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, that is 65% of the state's entire population. To reiterate, Over half of the state’s population lives close to or within areas of strong support. So shouldn't the results have been, at least, closer and not as lopsided?

This question can be answered by looking at how individual counties voted.

In the counties that supported legalization the most, there was not an overall majority of ‘Yes.’ Oklahoma County (where Oklahoma City is located) had the most support, with 51,242 voting in favor. But that only accounted for exactly 50% of the vote in the county as a whole. In second place, 49% voted in favor of recreational marijuana use in Cleveland County (part of the OKC metropolitan area and third most populous county in the state), with Tulsa County not far behind at 46% voting in favor.

Since the most populated counties also had the most support for legalization, the inability to obtain a favorable majority in these regions eliminated any chance of recreational marijuana being legalized.

So what comes next?

Even though the debate over recreational marijuana was mainly put to rest in Oklahoma, several other states are proposing, or have discussed proposing, new laws or votes that would legalize the use. Florida, Delaware, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and others could all see their marijuana laws change within the next few years, but the nature of that change has had ongoing discourse.

Advocates for legalization across the nation still believe that their cause is powerful and that their desired policies can be delivered by states as support blossoms throughout parts of the country. Morgan Fox, political director at NORML, a non-profit organization devoted to marijuana legalization, spoke about the recent setback: “We’re gonna see support continue to grow, and we have seen and grown over the past decades. We’ve been used to losing for many years, and it’s something that we don’t forget.”


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