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Don’t bogart SQ 788

Legislators could rewrite medical marijuana law before Oklahomans vote on it

Advocates for medical marijuana in Oklahoma were riding high after collecting nearly 66,000 signatures to put State Question 788 up for a vote of the people. SQ 788 would allow people to apply for a medical marijuana license with the recommendation of a doctor, and license holders would be able to possess useable marijuana and plants in generous quantities. Among state medical marijuana laws, SQ 788 falls on the more permissive end, with relatively few restrictions on how marijuana is grown and distributed and who qualifies to use the drug.

This session, some legislators have introduced bills that would reduce the scope of medical marijuana in Oklahoma. While some changes to the law are advisable, one bill would make the measure unrecognizable before voters even have a chance to express their opinions on the matter.

Under SB 1120 by Sen. Ervin Yen (R-Oklahoma City), only people who are terminally ill or have one of four serious conditions would qualify for a license, and patients would be able to possess only a 30-day supply of the amount prescribed by their doctor. By comparison, Alaska, which, according to a 2014 study, has the most restrictive laws on obtaining medical marijuana, has a list of eight conditions that qualify for a prescription.

Most concerning is the harsh punishment that the bill would impose on people convicted of “criminal diversion of medical marijuana.” The first offense of providing medical marijuana to a person who does not have a prescription includes a mandatory minimum of one year and up to five years in prison. Given our state’s struggle to reduce its prison population, this would be a giant leap in the wrong direction.

SB 1120 failed its first vote in the Senate but was reconsidered and passed narrowly. It has been assigned to the House Judiciary committee.

Legislators looking for a measured approach to implementing and regulating medical marijuana should instead look to HB 3468. The proposal by Rep. John Paul Jordan (R-Yukon) would create an Oklahoma Cannabis Commission to regulate medical marijuana, taking that responsibility from the embattled Department of Health. It would lengthen the deadline to set up regulatory processes from the 30 days after passage set by SQ 788 to 120 days.

Commission members would be nominated by the Attorney General, legislative leaders, and government agencies, and all would be approved by the Governor. With that makeup, it’s likely that the Commission would be a cautious but accountable governing body. HB 3468 passed out of the House and awaits committee assignment in the Senate.

Many important issues must be carefully considered as a state establishes its medical marijuana regime, and setting up the Oklahoma Cannabis Commission through HB 3468 is a smart way to prepare. It invests wide regulatory power in a commission to closely study and adjust the state’s medical marijuana system, should SQ 788 pass.

This task is better left to a dedicated agency rather than the restrictive and punitive approach dictated by SB 1120. Polling suggests SQ 788 has strong support across the state. Legislators should resist the temptation to preempt the measure with a drastic rewrite before voters have a chance to weigh in.

Ryan Gentzler is a policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute. Find more at okpolicy.org.

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