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Referendum madness

Oklahoma’s medical cannabis caper continues

Oklahoma history was made last month when voters passed State Question 788, legalizing medical marijuana. The state question passed with 507,582 votes—just a little over 56 percent. But as quickly as voters approved the popular measure, its future became hazier than ever.

After SQ 788’s passage, the Department of Health issued a set of “emergency rules” that critics said drastically altered the spirit of the referendum. The regulations included a ban on the sale of smokable marijuana in dispensaries, a 12 percent THC limit on edibles, pregnancy test requirements for “females of childbearing age,” along with a requirement that all dispensaries have a licensed pharmacist on site.

It’s that last rule that prompted the fiercest criticism from the business community. Todd Larkin, owner of Pure Wellness CBD in Ardmore, said the regulations were unfair to dispensary owners.

“There’s no way we could afford [a pharmacist],” Larkin said. “And why would we want to pay for one and have to educate them on cannabis? And then you remove smokables, which most dispensaries in Colorado claim are 50 to 60 percent of their profits.”

Questions swirled around these new, puzzling regulations. Why have THC limits if THC is the therapeutic ingredient and has no known deadly dose? Why prohibit dispensaries from selling smokable pot when people can still grow their own? Why require a pharmacist when other states don’t?

It didn’t take long to find an answer to that last question. Reporting by NonDoc revealed that Julie Ezell, former general counsel for the State Department of Health, was offered a job by Oklahoma State Board of Pharmacy director Chelsea Church on the condition that Ezell influence the board to adopt the pharmacist rule.

Ezell’s draft of regulations did not include this requirement, an omission she claimed via text message to Church was the result of threatening emails she received. Those emails are now known to have been self-authored by Ezell. The situation is under investigation. Church has been terminated by the Pharmacy Board, and Ezell is facing felony charges for the bogus threats.

“The vast majority of the rules need to be thrown out due to the fact that they’re outside the authority of the Health Department,” said Frank Grove, a founding member of Oklahomans for Cannabis.

Now, to the relief of medical cannabis advocates, those rules are inching closer to the dustbin of history.

Representatives from Oklahomans for Health, Green the Vote, and other advocacy groups met with representatives from the Department of Health on July 26. The meeting resulted in a new draft of the medical marijuana rules, much more permissive than the first one.

The old emergency rules were the subject of two lawsuits. One filed by Green the Vote alleged that secret meetings took place between Gov. Mary Fallin and members of the Health Board in violation of the Open Meetings Act. In addition, the lawsuit argued that several named board members have conflicts of interest and should have recused themselves from the rulemaking process in the first place.

This new draft contains no ban on smokable marijuana, no limits on THC content, no pregnancy test requirements for women, and no requirement that a pharmacist be present at dispensaries. These new rules will be considered by the Board of Health in a special meeting on Aug. 1.

“Right now our main focus is on ensuring that special interests don’t degrade the quality of the program,” Grove said. “We’re fighting a battle on a lot of fronts here, and ultimately right now we need to work with the legislature and our allies to make sure that the program rolls out successfully this year.”

Despite the meddling from special interests, some advocates are optimistic about the future of medical cannabis in Oklahoma. “It looks like we’re going to have things our way and be able to regulate properly under law, which is all we’ve ever asked for and all we want,” said Chip Paul, founder of Oklahomans for Health. “That will still have to go through a Department of Health Board meeting, but I would hope they understand the risks involved in not approving what we put forth again.”

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