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Oklahoma Becomes Marijuana Legalization Battleground Between Advocates, With Legal Challenges And A New Ballot Initiative

The activist-led push to legalize marijuana in Oklahoma has become seriously contentious, with one campaign waging a legal challenge against a separate group of advocates working to end prohibition. The latest result of the conflict is the filing on Wednesday of a newly revised initiative to put legalization on the ballot.

The new measure comes from a campaign that’s being backed by the national New Approach PAC, which has been behind a number of successful state-level reform initiatives across the country. It filed its first 2022 Oklahoma legalization measure last month before facing the legal challenge from other activists over statutory concerns.

Money with sheet of marijuana close-up on background of one hundred dollars with an artificial ray of light, high quality image. Thematic photos of hemp and cannabis

The separate campaign, Oklahomans for Responsible Cannabis Action (ORCA), contested the prior New Approach measure with the state Supreme Court late last month, arguing that, among other things, the competing initiative violated a single subject rule for ballot proposals. It argued that the measure covers too many policies beyond simple legalization, which they say should render the initiative invalid.

But while ORCA chose to make that argument, its own initiative also covers significant ground. As filed, for example, both would provide pathways for expungements of prior cannabis convictions. That’s changed now in the latest New Approach-backed measure, and if the legal challenge against the prior measure goes forward and is successful, the initial draft would be rendered ineligible for the ballot and New Approach would pursue their second version.

Enter the new initiative from New Approach: This one makes technical changes to the gist and ballot title language to more closely align some of the provisions that were challenged. It also eliminates the expungements section to avoid a further legal contest based on the single subject rule.

ORCA, meanwhile, filed its own pair of 2022 ballot initiatives late last year to legalize adult-use marijuana and remodel the state’s existing medical cannabis program. Jed Green, director of ORCA, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that he feels the original New Approach initiative is “just the wrong approach for Oklahoma.”

Among the issues that Green discussed in his challenge with the state Supreme Court, he alleged that the gist and ballot titles were inconsistent when it comes to jurisdictional authority over regulations, taxing and expungements.

The new New Approach filing now specifically excludes expungements, meaning only its prior version and Green’s active measure contain the provision that he took issue with in the court filing.

“We’ve got similar [expungements] language to what, in theory, we’re challenging in [New Approach’s State Question 820]. But there is a difference,” he told Marijuana Moment. “The criminal justice reforms and restorative justice is much more potent in [ORCA’s initiatives] than it is in 820.”

“The real difference here between the two is that where 820 goes further, it actually prescribes judicial processes,” Green said. “819, on the subject of retroactivity, simply says, ‘Okay, this can be done retroactively, you know, these expungements can happen.’”

Michelle Tilley, the official proponent of the New Approach-backed initiatives, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “disappointing” Green’s campaign would “mischaracterize” the provisions of her measure.

“Their claims about SQ 820 are purely political and have nothing to do with the actual language of SQ 820 or whether SQ 820 will survive this protest, which we firmly believe it will,” she said. “However, the political games the 818/819 are playing have forced us to file another measure as insurance against the unlikely event SQ 820 does not proceed to the signature collection phase.”

“The supporters of SQ 820 trust that the courts and ultimately the voters of Oklahoma will see through the efforts of the 818/819 campaign to prevent Oklahomans from considering the important and sensible reforms in SQ 820,” Tilley said.

Meanwhile, ORCA’s own proposals have separately faced legal challenges filed by yet another cannabis activist in the state.

When it comes to Green’s challenge to the New Approach measure, it says that the “obvious intent is to create two separate descriptions of [the initiative] for the purpose of gathering support between two targeted demographic groups.” It adds that the “gist is written to appeal to Oklahomans most likely to sign the document for ballot access” and “the ballot title is written to appeal to a broader group of Oklahomans at the ballot box.”

Green said that the intent of the legal challenge to the New Approach initiative wasn’t to create barriers to reform from a competing campaign. And he said that he’d still be open to coordinating with activists behind the other reform push, despite having instigated this legal review.

“We’re not just assholes that like challenging or fighting our own people,” he said. “That needs be clear.”

However, he said that “what it really comes down to is, at the end of the day, in order to have the best shot of being on the ballot in November, one side has to yield to the other.”

Under ORCA’s recreational legalization proposal, adults 21 and older would be able to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana that they purchase from retailers, as well as whatever cannabis they yield from growing up to 12 plants for personal use.

Marijuana sales would be subject to a 15 percent excise tax, and the initiative outlines a number of programs that would receive partial revenue from those taxes. The money would first cover implementation costs and then would be divided to support water-related infrastructure, people with disabilities, substance misuse treatment, law enforcement training, cannabis research and more.

The measure also lays out pathways for resentencing and expungements for those with marijuana convictions.

Meanwhile, the New Approach initiative would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis, grow up to six mature plants and six seedings for personal use. The current Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses.

A 15 percent excise tax would be imposed on adult-use marijuana products, with revenue going to an “Oklahoma Marijuana Revenue Trust Fund.”

The funds would first cover the cost of administrating the program and the rest would be divided between municipalities where the sales occurred (10 percent), the State Judicial Revolving Fund (10 percent), the general fund (30 percent), public education grants (30 percent) and grants for programs involved in substance misuse treatment and prevention (20 percent).

Nothing about these key provisions was materially changed in the latest filing, except for the lack of an expungement pathway in light of Green’s challenge to the prior version.

Oklahoma voters approved medical cannabis legalization at the ballot in 2018. Unlike many state medical marijuana programs, it does not require patients have any specific qualifying conditions; doctors can recommend cannabis for any condition they see fit.

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) claimed in his State of the State speech on Monday that voters were mislead when they passed the initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state, arguing that the measure may require legislative reform.

The governor said that the ballot question passed by voters “was misleading, and it has tied our hands as we regulate the industry.”

Meanwhile, two Republican Oklahoma lawmakers are also looking into broader drug policy reform, recently filing bills meant to promote research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, and one of the measures would further decriminalize low-level possession of the psychedelic.

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