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Long march to the ballot

SQ788 has faced some opposition on its way to the June 26 vote

This is the second piece of a three-part series on Oklahoma’s medical marijuana initiative. Read part one here and part three here.

In June, Oklahomans will have the opportunity to vote on State Question 788, which provides for legalizing medical marijuana. But the path to the ballot was long, and the measure still faces opposition from some government and law enforcement representatives, and other groups.

When SQ 788 first gathered enough signatures to be placed on a ballot in 2016, then-Attorney General Scott Pruitt alerted the secretary of state that he intended to rewrite the title, arguing that it was insufficient to fully explain the measure. A statement from his press secretary said that Pruitt wanted to “ensure that [voters] are sufficiently informed by providing an accurate description of the measure’s effects.” Doing so postponed the measure from the November 2016 ballot until 2018.

Pruitt amended the ballot title to focus on the leniency of SQ 788’s guidelines, rather than it’s medical intent. The amended ballot title began:

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

In 2017, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found in a 7-1 ruling that the amended ballot title was misleading and ordered that its original language be restored.

In a January 2018 Executive Proclamation, Governor Mary Fallin moved the election date for the initiative to the June 26th primary ballot, rather than the more widely-attended November general election. This maneuver had not been done since 2005.

There were also attempts to undercut SQ 788 by legalizing medical marijuana under a much more restrictive law. In early 2018, Senate Bill 1120, authored by Senator Ervin Yen (R-OKC) and Representative Chris Kannady (R-OKC), would have legalized medical marijuana, but only for persistent muscle spasms due to MS or paraplegia, neuropathic pain, nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, and weight or appetite loss from HIV/AIDS or cancer. The bill did not list smoking as a legitimate method of delivery. Furthermore, patients would only have been allowed a 30-day supply of cannabis. The bill also imposed a mandatory minimum of one year in prison and up to five for “criminal diversion of medical marijuana.” After failing in the Senate in March, it was resubmitted and narrowly passed a few days later. It was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in April but died in the House.

Senator Yen criticized the leniency with which he thinks SQ 788 treats marijuana.

“In my view medical marijuana should be treated like any other drug,” said Yen. “That means if the benefits outweigh the risks, then you use it. That’s what we do with every other prescription drug.”

“I’m hopeful that 788 will not pass. Why do I say that? Because I think it’s recreational and I think it’s stupid to have recreational.”

Americans for Equal Liberty is currently running the SQ 788 is Not Medical campaign. The political action committee’s members include the Oklahoma State Medical Association, Oklahoma Pharmacists Association, Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association. The group says that the state question could allow marijuana to be prescribed for any purpose, legitimate or not. The measure specifically states that “there are no qualifying conditions” for a marijuana prescription, meaning that it would be up to a doctor’s discretion. The coalition argues that this would essentially legalize recreational marijuana.

“Our campaign is not against medical marijuana, it is against State Question 788. Those are two very distinct issues,” said Pat McFerron, a spokesman for the group.

SQ 788 “creates a special class of citizen out of those who obtain a medical marijuana license,” said Mike Waters, Pawnee County sheriff and president of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association in a press release. “It does not make sense that an 18-year-old can go to a veterinarian, say he gets headaches, and then be given a two-year license to carry enough marijuana for 85 joints.”

“Let’s talk reality. Your vet starts prescribing medical marijuana for humans, how’s that going to go?” said Oklahomans for Health Chairman Chip Paul. “Do you think that vet would be subject to prosecution? He would, certainly.”

SQ788 is Not Medical also claims that if measure passes, businesses will be unable to drug test their employees, doctors will have too little oversight over use, and that doctors who prescribe the drug illegitimately could not be “harassed or stigmatized.”

“The business community has serious concerns about how this state question is written,” said Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. “This state question infringes upon our rights to operate a drug-free workplace. Our opposition centers around our concerns for the safety of employees and the public.”

But Paul argues that this misrepresents the measure. “In my company we already have a drug policy. We won’t change anything due to medical marijuana if we pass it,” said Paul. “If you come to work high you’ll get fired just like if you came in under the influence of an opiate.”

The full text of SQ 788 can be found here.

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