OKLAHOMA CITY — Frustrated by years of gridlock over cannabis regulation, a newly formed marijuana advocacy group wants to enshrine new marijuana regulations into the state Constitution.

“The legislative process has to the degree that we needed been a fail,” said Jed Green, director of Oklahomans for Responsible Cannabis Action, as he announced plans to launch a ballot measure that would, among other things, make the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) a stand-alone state agency.

While some lawmakers oppose another ballot effort that attempts to circumvent their authority, Green said voters expected lawmakers to flesh out the state’s medicinal cannabis rules after they passed State Question 788 in 2018.

Instead, Green said years of gridlock, neglect and enforcement and regulatory inaction have created an out-of-control, billion-dollar industry that is threatened by illegal growers who are stressing rural water supplies and electrical grids.

The last comprehensive regulatory attempt failed after a veto from Gov. Kevin Stitt, and state senators have rebuffed subsequent efforts, he said.

Green said he's also frustrated by OMMA inaction.

“It’s almost as if they didn’t really do anything to enforce the program for the first couple of years,” Green said. “I’ve heard the back and forth where they say, ‘Well, we didn’t have power to do this, or the Legislature needs to do something.’”

Oklahoma also has become a haven for illegal marijuana smuggling while legal growers are grappling with expensive and over-burdensome regulations, Green said. Hundreds of thousands of licensed marijuana patients also remain without employment protections during drug screenings.

State Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, said this week, “I don’t think we’ve completely failed. I think we’ve made some blunders.”

Fetgatter said the House has tried to pass reforms, but “received rejection after rejection” from the Senate and the governor’s office. He said there is a lack of understanding among lawmakers about what’s needed to regulate the industry, as well as a failure to comprehend that some Oklahomans have invested their life savings in the industry.

He also said most legislation run in recent sessions seemed to be aimed at burdening legal users and businesses.

“We have to move past that at this point,” he said. “We have to focus on illegal operations, and how do we stop that because that’s the biggest problem we face in Oklahoma.”

Fegatter also places blame partially on the OMMA.

“OMMA enforcing the laws, and doing what they needed to do, has been a total failure,” Fetgatter said. “The bureaucracy that is supposed to oversee medical marijuana and enforce it in the state of Oklahoma has just been a complete and utter failure. I mean, it’s just been abysmal.”

OMMA, which is a division of the state Department of Health, is on its fourth director in three years. Fetgatter also has been pressing a bill that would make OMMA a standalone agency.

“Half the time legalized marijuana has been going on in Oklahoma, the Department of Health has been in the middle of a pandemic,” Fetgatter said. “The last thing on their mind has been marijuana. And marijuana requires that it has attention put on it. And you can’t be a secondary agency to somebody else.”

Kelsey Pagonis, an OMMA spokeswoman, said the division has licensed nearly 400,000 patients and more than 13,000 businesses.

“I’m not sure the bar by which that measurement is coming from,” she said of the criticism, “but I don’t think it’s been a complete and utter failure. I think there have been bumps in the road, for sure. I mean, we weren’t set up for success. We have had to build an industry backward, so we’ve been able to take our cues from the Legislature and from statutes that have been put in place.”

Pagonis said the OMMA has been trying to represent the will of the people and keep patients safe under the authority granted by legislators.

“Things are getting better at OMMA,” she said. “When you look at the data, what the team has been able to put together and do in such a short amount of time, it’s really incredible. But that doesn’t mean that it has been without missteps.”

She said the Legislature recently granted OMMA “cease-and-desist authority” to stop illegal operators. Previously, the division couldn’t do anything on the licensing front except go through administrative procedures, and rely on law enforcement.

“This will give us some teeth,” Pagonis said. “There’s already plans in the works. There’s already stuff in motion to get a handle on the illegal operations that are taking place in the state.”

State Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, said lawmakers are working to balance the will of voters to legalize medical marijuana while doing what’s best for Oklahoma. Voters did not put limits on licensing numbers, distributors or dispensaries, leaving it to lawmakers to sort that out. OMMA has faced “extreme challenges,” as it geared up from “absolutely zero,” he said.

“I’m always a little bit suspect of those who are running initiative petitions based on the Legislature not during their job,” he added.

Thompson also said lawmakers appropriated $5 million last session for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to “get rid of some of the bad players.”

Stitt’s office did not respond to a request for comment as of deadline.

“From my perspective, it seems like the system is working as the framers of the initiative petition intended it to, and so again it seems like any of these issues are probably because of the Legislature’s failure to act in the first place and hand over this power or refuse to act so that this is how the system works now,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman.

Virgin said she’s long thought about the Legislature’s failure to address medical marijuana issues even before State Question 788 passed.

“This is one of those instances where we’re having trouble with it because we did not come to the table in terms of writing this law,” Virgin said. “Those issues with rural water and with illegal grows are real ones, and those need to be addressed, and the Legislature should address them, but we too often seem more concerned with other issues, namely those really divisive social issues that really don’t serve to solve any problems in the state.”

She said there has been “significant marijuana regulation” passed the past few sessions, and said there remains a willingness to tackle the issue to some extent, but also said that as some in the Republican Party continue to push back on marijuana legalization, it’s going to become harder and harder to address the issue. Ongoing fighting within the marijuana industry itself over regulations and needs has further complicated the issue, she said.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the Senate wants medical marijuana reform and to suggest otherwise is false. He said the Senate is studying the issue internally, and there is increasing support for reforms, including making OMMA a stand-alone agency.

“The goal of the Senate has been and will be to pursue medical marijuana policies that protect the health and safety of Oklahomans while also providing a regulatory framework that allows the industry to be successful,” Treat said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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