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Marijuana ballot measure could lead to another special session

The Journal Record

May 9, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – Because the two chambers within the Oklahoma Legislature couldn’t agree, the passage of State Question 788 would likely trigger another special legislative session.

The ballot initiative would legalize medical marijuana in Oklahoma. Unlike constitutional amendments that some state questions enact, SQ 788 would create a change in statute. That means that lawmakers can go in and change the legal mechanisms within the law. The text within the state question is vague and doesn’t dictate many procedures that would be necessary for a smooth transition.

Lawmakers in each chamber rallied behind bills that would create those clear rules. Instead of spanning a few pages, they span a few dozen describing new arms of government to oversee the new substance and its regulation. In the lower chamber, state Rep. John Paul Jordan, R-Yukon, introduced House Bill 3468. In the higher chamber, state Sen. Ervin Yen, R-Oklahoma City, introduced Senate Bill 1120.

Each measure passed out of its chamber of origin. The House version saw significantly less pushback. However, neither bill ever got a floor hearing in the opposite chamber.

That could be a problem if the ballot measure passes. Oklahoma government officials won’t have a way to implement policies or enforce them. House Floor Leader Jon Echols said it could mean more work this summer.

“I’m very nervous that it will trigger a special session,” he said. “When 788 was originally formed, they gave that (regulatory power) to the Department of Health, which at the time made sense.”

Since then, the agency has been in a financial scandal that revealed top officials had misspent at least $30 million. About 200 employees have been laid off, and services such as child abuse prevention and uncompensated care assistance have been nixed.

Officials in that department said in an earlier interview the agency is incapable of writing and implementing rules for medical marijuana. That is why lawmakers planned to get involved, to write policies and perhaps spread responsibilities.

The major difference between the two bills: whether they limit the scope. Yen, a physician, has criticized the language within the state question for being too lax. His bill would put more restrictions on use. The House bill offers no more restrictions but logistical backup implementing the policy.

Yen said during committee hearings on the bill that as the state question is written, it is essentially a recreational marijuana measure. That is why it needs more limits on who can qualify and who can prescribe.

“There are no qualifying conditions,” the state question reads. “A medical marijuana license must be recommended according to the accepted standards a reasonable and prudent physician would follow when recommending or approving any medication.”

It also states that doctors must simply be certified by the Oklahoma Board of Health, but it doesn’t lay out what kind of doctors are allowed to prescribe.

Yen’s bill lays out qualifying conditions: neuropathic pain, muscle spasms that have developed because of multiple sclerosis or paraplegia, nausea from chemotherapy and weight loss due to cancer, HIV or AIDS.  It says that doctors must work in a field related to the condition for which marijuana is prescribed, and that smoking marijuana is not an acceptable means of ingestion.

House Bill 3468 would create a separate oversight organization, the Oklahoma Cannabis Commission, to oversee the policy implementation. The Department of Health would be responsible for supporting the commission.

That bill went to committee in February. About a month before, the House investigative committee looking into mismanagement at the Department of Health had hit its height. Several Democrats raised concerns about the federal government taking over the agency while this bill would be implemented under it.

A month later, during the March 15 floor hearing, Democrats were again concerned. State Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman, said that former acting director Preston Doerflinger had said it would be impossible to implement.

“How will we implement any of this with the state of the Health Department?” she said.

Jordan said the agency’s poor state of affairs isn’t the only issue, and that is why the new commission would be created. A majority of that agency’s budget is covered with federal money.

“It removes it from the state Health Department,” he said. “It creates a new commission. 788 will go against federal law. It puts that federal funding at risk.”

Echols criticized the Senate version for its limitations, saying that lawmakers should obey the will of the people. He compared State Question 788 to the alcohol modernization state questions. He said that people knew what they were voting for both times.

“The citizens have decided they would like strong beer and wine in grocery stores,” he said. “The citizens did not decide they want little kids to have alcohol. The citizens did not decide, if they vote for 788, they’ll have unregulated marijuana. We need to make sure we have a system that does what they said they want to do.”

Echols said the House Republican leadership endorsed the bill without endorsing the state question itself. Members were trying to avoid a special session if the question passes.

“It got caught up in the politics of the (state question) itself,” he said. “That was kind of a shame. I think we missed an opportunity to be forward-thinking instead of reactionary.”

About Bo Broadwater

Bo Broadwater joined The Journal Record Legislative Report as legislative report manager in October 2017. Bo is a member of the Warr Acres City Council and very active in his community. For the past several years, he has been the owner of a small business that provides window treatments such as shutters, blinds and shades as well as window and door replacement. He was a candidate for the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2016. He attended Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City and the University of Oklahoma and graduated with a degree political science.

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