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Oklahoma politics and pot

What a long but predictably strange trip it’s been



Governor, try to control your enthusiasm.

“Backers of this proposal to legalize medical marijuana followed procedures and gathered the more than 66,000 required signatures to submit the issue to a vote of the people,” said Fallin. “I’m fulfilling my duty as governor to decide when that election will occur this year.”1

In announcing a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot (State Question 788) for June 26, Mary Fallin did everything but yawn.

This proposal has been around since 2016, so why did it take so long to actually make it to the voters?

Forget it, Jake, it’s Oklahoma.

Let’s first talk about what the bill is not: the legalization of marijuana in the state.

Unlike the law in, say, Colorado, Oregon, and now California, among other states, which legalizes recreational marijuana use, the Oklahoma statute will only allow doctors to prescribe cannabis to their patients—and not a lot of it, either—for medical purposes. Cannabis will only be available at state-approved dispensaries—and not at Zeke’s Head Shop and Herb Emporium.

(You can read the specifics of the bill here.2)

The point—and we’ll get to how obscuring the point was the point for the longest time—is to allow people for whom the use of marijuana relieves chronic pain—like cancer patients and those who suffer from migraines and anxiety—to acquire it legally and not have to rely on their old college roommate who knows a guy.

Pardon the expression, but to get in the weeds for a moment, this is how pot works on those in pain.

There are at least two active chemicals in marijuana that researchers think have medicinal applications. Those are cannabidiol (CBD)—which seems to impact the brain without a high—and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—which has pain-relieving (and other) properties.3

The bill is not designed for the Ridgemont High Jeff Spicolis of the state.

Seems like a no-brainer, then. So who would be against such a measure?

You mean other than current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt?

Back in August 2016, Pruitt, then Oklahoma’s attorney general, took it upon himself to rewrite the initiative, which effectively put the kibosh on it, keeping the bill not only from passing but even from appearing before voters.

How did he do that?

By adding this to the first sentence of the State Question:

“This measure legalizes the licensed use, sale, and growth of marijuana in Oklahoma. There are no qualifying medical conditions identified.”4

Sleight of hand, line one.

The proposal legalized medical marijuana—not marijuana. Equally bad: By introducing this change as late in the process as he did, Pruitt set back the clock on the legislation, making it impossible for the measure to show up on the ballot in time for the 2016 election. And what state attorney general adds an editorial comment to a state question, anyway?

Maybe only a cynic would suggest Pruitt did that deliberately because he wanted the measure to fail.

Call me a cynic.

In March 2017, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court called Pruitt on his tinkering and ruled in favor of Oklahomans for Health, which was fighting to restore the original ballot language.

Pruitt is an honest broker on bills pertaining to marijuana in much the same way Jeff Sessions is, which is to say, not at all. (More on Sessions shortly.) Also in 2016, Pruitt joined the Nebraska attorney general in suing Colorado for passing its marijuana law, alleging some of the evil weed would make its way to Oklahoma.

In written arguments submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court, the two attorneys general argued that Colorado now “authorizes, oversees, protects, and profits from a sprawling $100-million-per-month marijuana growing, processing, and retailing organization that exported thousands of pounds of marijuana to some 36 States in 2014.”

“If this entity were based south of our border, the federal government would prosecute it as a drug cartel,” the attorneys general wrote.5

Nice, huh? Comparing the people who brought legalized pot to Colorado to a drug cartel.

(The Supreme Court ultimately voted 6-2 against Pruitt and the Nebraska AG.)

What Fallin did last month, then, was simply to allow a vote for the initial proposal. She could have placed this on the general election ballot in November, when just about every elected office statewide comes before the voters, or on the primary ballot in June, when it’s 4,000 degrees in Oklahoma and nobody but policy wonks and party activists vote.

She chose June.

Only a cynic would say she did so to depress turnout.

Call me a—ah, never mind.

Drew Edmondson, who’s running for the Democratic nomination for governor, offered some thoughts on the matter.

“It would seem that by placing State Question 788,” Edmondson’s office wrote me, “on the [June 2018] primary ballot instead of on the [November 2018] general election ballot, where turnout has historically been higher, Governor Fallin is hoping to minimize the number of voters who decide its fate. This is an important issue and certainly one where all Oklahomans should vote—despite Governor Fallin’s efforts to stifle their voices.”

Edmondson, who’s in favor of passage, thinks the issue is a test for his GOP opponents.

“Having medical marijuana on the June ballot will force the Republican candidates to choose a side.”

A side the GOP frontrunner almost took.

I contacted Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb’s office.

Here was their response:

“I suspect this issue will be much debated and discussed among Oklahomans in the months ahead; however, my campaign will continue to focus on what Oklahomans believe are even more substantive issues. My five-point plan to RENEW Oklahoma will reform the budgeting process, direct 65 percent of the education budget to the classroom, and increase teacher pay under just two of the points. This approach will positively impact every Oklahoman’s life and will continue to be the cornerstone of my campaign, in addition to being the focus of most Republican primary voters in June.”

Talk about taking a pitch; Lamb didn’t even come out of the on-deck circle to answer the question.

Leadership!

On the very day Fallin was announcing this vote, ironically, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another proponent of states’ rights (most of the time, anyway), rescinded an Obama-era policy that allow for legalized marijuana in states.6

Instead of the previous policy of lenient federal enforcement begun under former attorney general Eric Holder in 2013, Sessions’s new stance will instead let federal prosecutors where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce longstanding federal law prohibiting it. Guidance issued on Thursday depicted the change as a “return to the rule of law.”

For the love of a bong and common sense, really? People like Pruitt and Sessions are all for keeping government out of our lives unless someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder wants to sit on his or her front porch and smoke a little ganj to quiet the demons.

Here’s Republican Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, whose state now has a $1 billion industry thanks to the legalization of pot and Sessions’s duplicity:

“Jeff Sessions told me this wouldn’t be a priority. Jeff Sessions told me the policy would not be reversed, and today Jeff Sessions went back on his word,” the senator said.7

Well, la-di-da.

There’s also something else at stake. Friend of the column Jill Webb, former Tulsa County public defender, believes the decriminalization of medical marijuana is not only a “great” proposed law, but that the complete decriminalization of the drug—again, not in this state question—is ultimately a civil rights matter.

Why? Race.

“In truth,” Webb said, “marijuana is the best example we have of the racism inherent in the way criminal laws are applied. For white people, especially upper-middle-class white people, marijuana is literally a joke. It’s laughed about that we do it in college. It’s taken for granted that the people who run for president have done it. All of us sort of expect our children to go through this phase. We have musical genres around it. But for African Americans, in particular, and African American males, especially, there’s no room for any use. It’s not a joke. They are put in jail. It is often their entry into the criminal justice system. And it’s used as an excuse to revoke probation.”

As of right now, 29 states and the District of Columbia have made legal some kind of medical marijuana usage, including such socialist enclaves as Arkansas and West Virginia.8

The rap against medical marijuana is that, if not controlled, it can affect short-term memory, increase abuse and addiction, and diminish overall quality of life.

Fair enough, but tell that to someone in constant pain from pancreatic cancer. Better yet, let those with pancreatic cancer decide about the quality of their own lives—and their children’s— and how much pain they’re prepared to live with. As for the rest of the risks associated with marijuana, the same was and is said about alcohol.

Seagram’s has always had better lobbyists than Zeke’s Head Shop and Herb Emporium.

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