Oklahoma’s Cannabis Legalization Failure: The Why and How

Oklahoma’s recreational cannabis ballot failed, but if we look at the details, it’s not surprising why.

by Dessy Pavlova · March 30, 2023

In 2018, medical marijuana measures in Oklahoma passed with a 14-point margin – and that is a big part of why the momentum to create a recreational, adult-use cannabis market in the state came to an abrupt halt.

Medical Cannabis in Oklahoma

Today, 5% of Oklahoma’s adult population are medical cannabis patients, a much higher percentage than most other states. Since legalizing medical cannabis in the state, the market grew quickly to include more than 100,000 patients, 800 caregivers, 3,000 growers and more than 1,400 dispensaries – quite a robust market for less than 4 million residents. Comparatively, there are about 1000 dispensaries for California’s 40 million people.

Oklahoma Rejects Recreational Cannabis

The overpopulation of medical cannabis dispensaries in Oklahoma led to a 2-year moratorium on processing and issuing new medical marijuana business licenses, passing in August 2022. This was a signifier that an already saturated cannabis market, paired with persistent stigma against cannabis use, would limit the upcoming policy’s success.

Medical cannabis in Oklahoma is a booming business that was backed by a lot of passionate activists, and the funding generated by their activism helped ensure the message expanded across the state. With the money rolling in from a medical market perspective, recreational cannabis had few supporters to help – and a far less clear message of the benefits and necessities of legalization.

Never mind that medical cannabis business licensing alone made Oklahoma more than $13 million this year. The state collected another cool 3 million in patient license fees so far in 2023, according to OMMA’s medical cannabis data. As for medical marijuana sales tax revenue, more than 30 million has been generated in March 2023 alone. What would a recreational cannabis market generate in the same period? We’ll have to wait and see if it ever materializes.

Oklahoma’s Illegal Cannabis Market

Like medical cannabis, the underground cannabis market in Oklahoma is also booming. The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs recently identified a number of medical cannabis operators suspected of either obtaining their licenses fraudulently or selling cannabis illegally.

Pro-cannabis legalization backers didn’t spend the money needed to advertise the principle that most residents can get behind – legal, adult-use cannabis would help combat the underground market, and bring these profits above ground, as well as give the state the tax revenues to reinvest in managing and policing the illegal market. When will Oklahoma get another chance to go legal? Hopefully legalization activists will come together when the next opportunity arises.