Oklahoma Rejects Recreational Marijuana Legalization

Oklahoma voters on Tuesday turned back an effort to legalize recreational marijuana, defeating a statewide ballot measure.

The loss came almost five years after Oklahomans had approved medical marijuana, leading to what one industry website called “the most liberal medical marijuana market in the country” and what critics said was an underregulated lure for illegal activities.

The campaign was a relatively low-key affair, though, as the vote was pushed back from the November 2022 date marijuana proponents had been hoping for to March, where the initiative was the sole item to be voted on in many places.

Proponents touted the prospect of additional tax revenue for the state from expanding the marijuana market and the fairness of allowing people with minor convictions in marijuana cases to have them expunged.

Opponents, led by former Republican Gov. Frank Keating, a onetime FBI agent, pointed to problems with the existing medical marijuana regime as well as fears that legalizing recreational marijuana would bring more crime and environmental problems.

Legalization advocates held a decisive edge in cash for the campaign, raising $3.2 million through the end of 2022 and airing broadcast TV commercials in the closing weeks. The anti-legalization side, according to its pollster Pat McFerron, was expected to spend only about $250,0000 and concentrate on satellite and cable TV ads.

Ethan McKee, vice president of Mango Cannabis, weighs marijuana flowers at an Oklahoma City dispensary on Feb. 28.

But the backdrop was in many ways unfavorable to marijuana advocates. In November, four Chinese nationals were found shot to death at a farm in rural Kingfisher County in a crime that made headlines statewide and that law enforcement officials said showed the potential pitfalls of a larger cannabis industry.

In addition, there had been growing and bipartisan consensus that regulation of medical marijuana, which was approved in a similar statewide vote by a wide margin in 2018, had not kept up with the industry’s explosive growth. Oklahoma has nearly three times as many licensed cannabis dispensaries and almost as many licensed grow facilities as California, despite the latter having 10 times Oklahoma’s population and having already legalized recreational marijuana years ago.

The recreational marijuana measure voted on Tuesday would have allowed sales to residents 21and older and taxed them at 15%. Proceeds from the taxes would have been split among schools, drug treatment programs and state and local governments. It also would have allowed for the expungement of minor marijuana-related criminal convictions.

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