Long resistant to change, voters in the Midwest, much like those in the South, are only slowly moving reluctant lawmakers toward marijuana reform.
Illinois and Michigan may have legalized recreational marijuana, but Oklahoma is turning heads.
The medical program approved by the Sooner State voters two years ago is thriving, and South Dakotans approved both recreational and medical marijuana on the same day, the first time that’s been done. Only in four states — Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho — does cannabis remain completely illegal in America’s heartland. And the barriers continue to fall.
Oklahoma Showing the Way
The most obvious signs of success are in the way Oklahoma, a red state long resistant to reform, handled its citizens’ wishes. Republicans account for 48.3 percent of the state’s voters, with Democrats trailing far behind at 35.3 percent, both numbers part of a 60-year trend of Republican growth around the state.
Despite the dominance, 57% of voters approved medical marijuana in 2018. Instead of trying to stop or limit it, legislators responded by giving the industry the tools it needed to thrive.
“There’s probably no real reason to decriminalize here,” attorney and Green County NORML Director Michael Mullen told The News Station. “The reason is that you can’t be turned down. It’s illegal for a doctor to turn you down. There are more people with medical cards per capita here than anyplace else. Who would have thought?”
Mullen said one of every 13 Oklahomans now have medical cards. Retail sales topped $345 million in 2019, and state tax revenue was $55 million, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission. And those numbers are only continuing to grow.
The state’s let-it-be attitude is yet another reminder cannabis has crossed all political barriers. Whether they identify as Democratic or Republican, voters indicated strong support for medical marijuana access. Lawmakers, forced to create a system, decided, unlike many other red states, to give the industry a chance.
Mullen said that attitude allowed a free market, akin to the “Wild West” of products and with stores now in all regions of the conservative state. Any patient can grow six plants, which he noted “means that if a person has a card and his wife has a card, that’s 12 plants.”
The most active sales, he said, are along the state’s borders, especially along the southern border with Texas.
Lone Star State Still Divided
You would think Oklahoma’s success and that last observation would make an impression on the Lone Star State, especially since, like everywhere else, marijuana is popular with voters there. But you might be wrong.
“I don’t know how much you know about Texas, but we don’t really in general subscribe to the ‘we should be like so and so’ theory,” Texas NORML Executive Director Jax Finkel told The News Station, adding only six legislators have medical degrees.
“We have to use very different talking points here”Jax Finkel of NORML
Texas has no voter initiative process, Finkel said, and the legislature only meets once every two years, so this session will be cannabis advocates’ last chance before 2023 to get anything done. Many lawmakers support at least decriminalizing marijuana, especially for small offenses like possession, and a recent study suggested there are more than one and a half million adults in Texas who consume cannabis monthly. They expect the state to annually see around $2.7 billion in cannabis sales, more than a billion dollars in state revenue every two years and the creation of 20,000-40,000 jobs and tens of thousands more in subsidiary industries.
The state has a limited medical program with about 3,000 registered patients. THC content is limited to 0.5% on all products, and there are only two operational dispensaries in the largest continental US state, she said. There are almost 60 cannabis-related bills in this session, many just aimed at basic decriminalization, though the state’s two Republican executives remain roadblocks. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are against any efforts to expand their medicinal program or to even consider recreational marijuana use.
One significant change this session could be the addition of the medical condition of PTSD for veterans. And while advocates are pushing for this, veteran’s groups, Finkel says, many want to include PTSD for first responders and victims of child abuse as well as veterans.
Despite the obstacles and small victories, Finkel said, “We’re succeeding. It’s hard because we’re not where we want to be, and we have a lot of work to do, but we’ve come a long way.”
Both Michigan and Illinois now have legal recreational marijuana programs in operation, with the latter now expected to reach a billion dollars in sales and set to open its first consumption bar. Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Ever has included full cannabis legalization in his latest budget proposal. With Republicans in charge of both state houses that appears unlikely, but they are talking.
“I think it’s notable to point out that this is the first time he’s included it in the budget,” NORML State Policies Manager Carly Wolf told The News Station. “I think adult use legalization would be a long shot, but there might be some more appetite for a modest penalty reduction.”
Minnesota, which passed a limited medical cannabis program five years ago that included a unique provision that patients could not use flower, or smokable, marijuana, is now debating whether to allow recreational adult-use as well as updating the medical program.
The latest medical bill continues pandemic-related provisions from last year like allowing curbside delivery, adds opioid addiction to the list of medical conditions, and will allow producers to make and sell marijuana in dried flower form, after advocates argued that only allowing THC in liquid form is more expensive for users, especially since insurance companies won’t cover cannabis products.
This one seems to be getting bipartisan support and looks to pass this session. “I’ve come from one end to the other on this,” Republican state Sen. Chris Eaton told the MinnPost.com. “As a person in long-term recovery, I had some real qualms about supporting medical marijuana.”
Which Brings Us to South Dakota
South Dakota voters legalized recreational marijuana for adults along with a medicinal marijuana initiative in November. Both were strongly opposed by Gov. Kristi Noem and many legislators, who have continued their vocal opposition since the election, with little success.
“It’s very difficult for me to understand her political calculus during the last year,” Marijuana Policy Project Deputy Director Matthew Schweich told The News Station. “She is trying to overturn two laws approved by a majority of voters. She is facing reelection next year. Many think she will run for president in the future. I don’t see any political benefit to her marijuana policy.”
Still, he added, Noem has lost every bid to delay or cancel legalization and is perhaps finally beginning to understand there’s not much she can do beyond comply with voters’ wishes.
“We definitely won round one,” Schweich said. “It was a big win for the good guys.”
So why do legislators still try to thwart the will of people of all political persuasions who want legal access to weed? Schweich said it’s both generational — “the average age of legislators is older than the average age of voters, and the older you are, the more you might oppose this” — and the political makeup of the legislature doesn’t reflect the political makeup of the state.
“There’s also this fear that politicians don’t want to embrace things that are controversial,” he explained, “and then they overestimate how controversial they are.”
South Dakota legalization put additional pressure on neighboring states — some with laws still criminalizing marijuana — to at least consider decriminalization measures.
In North Dakota, for instance, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill to legalize recreational marijuana. Another measure would begin setting up tax policy for cannabis firms. Both are now awaiting hearings in the Senate.
“Our success has placed pressure on North Dakota to take action,” Schweich said. “There is plenty of support among voters there today.”
And in Wyoming, the House Judiciary Committee passed a legalization bill. It now awaits a floor hearing, hopefully before the session ends on April 2.
“Wyoming in the past has not seen a legalization bill,” Wolf said. “That goes to show broad support for cannabis.”
Missouri voters approved medical use in 2018, and the program is now operational. Advocates are writing a recreational marijuana initiative for 2022. Between that and South Dakota’s move, pressure continues building on neighboring states like Kansas and Nebraska to get in step.
Kansas, where CBD stores proliferate but where marijuana use is still considered a crime, lawmakers have proposed a limited medical bill. In Nebraska, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, in response to efforts to change the state’s laws, said if legalization passes, it will kill children, the latest in a series of misleading lies that brings back memories of the anti-marijuana 1930s propaganda film “Reefer Madness.”
“Legislators in neighboring states are reading the tea leaves,” Schweich said. “And many are coming to an understanding that if they don’t take action, the voters will, and they would rather do it in the legislature, where they have more control.”
Schweich admitted that legalization would put him out of a job. “It would be a wonderful thing if they put me out of business. I want that,” he said. “That would be good for the American people.”
Oklahoma’s Mullen was more succinct about reluctant legislators and their antiquarian thinking.
“Think of how much money they’re losing,” he said. “They’re giving money away to other states.”
Wolf said pressure will continue to squeeze states to reform policies no longer in line with citizens’ wishes.
“I think that with only a minority of states that haven’t enacted medical or adult use, we’re seeing more consideration by states that we haven’t seen in the past,” she said. “Hopefully next year we’ll see another slew of ballot measures enacted.”
This is the third in a four-part series. On tap next week: Western states are now mostly legal. What now?