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Oklahoma Fast-Tracking Medical Marijuana, but with Pushback

by Sean Murphy
Wednesday Jul 11, 2018
Chip Paul, who helped write the medical marijuana state question and push for its passage, answers a question for a reporter before a meeting of the Oklahoma Board of Health in Oklahoma City.
Chip Paul, who helped write the medical marijuana state question and push for its passage, answers a question for a reporter before a meeting of the Oklahoma Board of Health in Oklahoma City.  (Source:AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma pushed ahead with emergency rules Tuesday aimed at fast-tracking operations of the medical marijuana industry, but not before concerned health officials tacked on requirements that cannabis advocates say will only slow things down.

The state Board of Health narrowly voted to prohibit the sale of smokable marijuana and require that dispensaries must have a pharmacist on staff. The board's own attorney advised against the additions, and the changes rankled medical marijuana proponents who accused the board of defying the will of the people.

"The people were clear. They wanted to be able to smoke medical marijuana," said former state Sen. Connie Johnson, a longtime advocate for legalized marijuana. "This flies in the face of what the people wanted."

Legal wrangling has gummed up the rollout of medical marijuana in several other states, including in neighboring Arkansas, where a proposal approved by voters in 2016 remains on hold because of a legal challenge. There were years of court fights in Michigan after voters there approved medical marijuana in 2008.

But state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin stepped aside after residents of traditionally conservative Oklahoma voted June 26 to legalize medical marijuana , paving the way for a quicker start. Nearly 57 percent of voters said yes to one of the least-restrictive laws in the country that makes it legal to grow, sell and use marijuana for medicinal purposes. The law, which made it to the ballot through signature petition, outlines no qualifying conditions, which would allow physicians to authorize its use for a broad range of ailments and gives a 60-day timeline to implement.

Implementation could face strong head winds, though, from opponents in the business, medical and law enforcement fields that pushed hard against the proposal. Groups representing doctors and hospitals, both of which opposed State Question 788, recommended the ban on selling smokable marijuana and the pharmacist requirement.

Health board member Charles Skilling, the CEO of a hospital in Shawnee who proposed the ban, said he did it out of concern for public health. Health advocates have pushed for so long against smoking cigarettes that it was hard for them to endorse smoking of any kind.

Oklahoma's interim commissioner of health said the agency is fully prepared to move forward with a regulatory framework for the new industry in the state, although he acknowledged legal challenges are likely.

"I have no reason to think it won't go smoothly and that the will of the people won't be adhered to," said Commissioner Tom Bates.

Chip Paul, who helped write the medical marijuana state question and push for its approval, said the board's last-minute changes were problematic, but he's optimistic the state is closer to helping patients.

"Even with a pharmacist on site, even with no smokable marijuana, we now have a program where patients who are suffering can at least get some relief, and that's a giant, huge deal," Paul said.

Bud Scott, an attorney who represents several marijuana businesses, called the board's actions "an insult to our democratic institutions."

"This is an attempt to kneecap the program," Scott said, "not a good-faith effort to implement it safely."

Scott has called for a special legislative session for lawmakers to set up a regulatory framework, and Fallin initially supported the idea. But the governor reversed course when lawmakers expressed little appetite to return to the Capitol to tinker with the new law just ahead of the November election.

Meanwhile, marijuana advocates are gathering signatures for a statewide vote on whether to fully legalize cannabis for recreational use in Oklahoma. Organizers say they've gathered about 84,000 signatures so far and need about 40,000 more by Aug. 8 to qualify for the November ballot.

Oklahoma's was the first marijuana question on a state ballot in 2018, with elections scheduled for later this year in Michigan and Utah.

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