‘Let’s turn those criminals into customers’

At the end of the week leading up to a special election on recreational marijuana, State Question 820 campaign adviser Ryan Kiesel is infuriated.

He knows many fellow Oklahomans, including his own loved ones, plan to vote no Tuesday — but he’s mad about how some opponents are painting an important piece of criminal justice reform to scare voters.

The question is about more than whether marijuana should be legal for anyone 21 and older, Kiesel said, or even the extra tax revenue.

“Everybody knows somebody either affected by the criminal justice system, or who is a current marijuana user, and realizes that this thing we have tried to use prohibition to deal with for generations just isn’t worth ruining lives over,” he said in a Tulsa World interview.

But to hear from opponents of legal marijuana, lives are being ruined anyway, and to pass SQ820 would strengthen the black market, increase homelessness and exacerbate mental health issues.

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Oklahoma has had a medical marijuana program since 2018 that specifies no qualifying conditions for patients, leading many to say the state “already has recreational” due to low barriers of entry.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, part of the No on 820 campaign, said since SQ 788 passed that it’s made Oklahoma “the largest black market marijuana network in the nation.”

He and others have pointed out the state has more growers and dispensaries than could possibly be needed for the 10% of Oklahomans who hold medical marijuana licenses. And Kiesel said a recent report found 100,000 Oklahomans are consuming cannabis without a patient card.

But that’s a point that can also be made in support of SQ 820, according to cannabis activist and business owner Dana McMurtry. She told the Tulsa World she is “a definite yes” on SQ 820 because legal adult-use marijuana will undercut the black market.

“Let’s turn those criminals into customers,” McMurtry said.

Law enforcement concerns

When asked last month about his opinion on the question of recreational marijuana for Oklahoma, Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton was candid in saying the medical program has already been a “nightmare to police.”

Others share his concerns that the proliferation of bad actors trying to take advantage in Oklahoma have “exceeded what we can keep up with” from a law enforcement perspective.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs said those criminal enterprises “can maximize their profits by moving here.”

“That’s our concern. We’ve already seen that the last two and a half years,” Mark Woodward said in an interview with the Tulsa World.

After a high-profile mass murder at a grow operation in rural Kingfisher County, stakeholders across the state became concerned about organized crime connected to marijuana. But Woodward said those homicides were not the first state agents have connected to black market grow operations.

“These are complex, violent criminal organizations that deal in hard drugs and human trafficking — they just also happen to carry high-quality marijuana,” he said.

When asked about SQ 820, medical marijuana activist Norma Sapp said she doesn’t expect it to pass and shared concerns about ongoing investigations into thousands of growers across the state.

Kiesel acknowledged the struggle but said in addition to SQ 820 funding law enforcement efforts through multiple streams of tax revenue, it would address another problem county sheriffs have acknowledged.

“There’s a new tool in 820 that is very important that will give local law enforcement … the ability to know if a grow operation that they’re looking at in their town is legal or illegal,” Kiesel said. “Right now it’s very difficult if not impossible for them to figure that out.”

It isn’t clear what effect the higher tax rate on recreational marijuana, about double the excise on patients at the dispensary, might have on undercutting black market sales. However, Kiesel says it’s safe to say bad actors “struggle to compete” when anyone 21 and older can walk into a clean, safe dispensary instead of going to a drug dealer.

Other concerns

Some of the other benefits of legal adult-use marijuana are obvious, supporters say, including job creation in rural areas and criminal justice reform for nonviolent drug offenders.

But opponents of SQ 820 worry expanding into recreational marijuana changes life in Oklahoma in ways that might be less obvious.

In a Tulsa World interview about the state question, Sheriff Vic Regalado said he worries about the increased population of individuals with housing insecurity, many of whom are young people.

“Before you go to the ballot box, be armed with the facts and be able to make an educated decision on the future of Oklahoma,” the Tulsa County sheriff said.

The connections between legal marijuana and homelessness can be hard to pinpoint, but real estate professionals say developers are attracted to areas that can offer “weed tourism.” Researchers have found that, in addition to increased demand for commercial properties and storefronts, residential property values can increase about $500 for every $1 million in tax revenue from cannabis sales. Increasing market values can squeeze out local owners in favor of out-of-state investments, making affordable housing even harder to attain for many residents.

Opponents of SQ820 also point out the intoxicating component of marijuana, THC, has been known to exacerbate mental illness in some individuals. Those with this sensitivity might suffer bipolar episodes or schizophrenia symptoms as a result of overexposure to THC. Individuals experiencing homelessness are especially at risk, according to research.

Also at higher risk: young people, whose not-fully-developed brains can suffer more ill effects from THC. Among the most oft-repeated arguments against recreational marijuana is the increased access for minors.

Defense attorney Brian Boheim said he wanted to talk to Tulsa World about SQ 820 after spending 10 years working numerous cases involving minors under the influence of marijuana. As he and others have pointed out, teen shootings have been an increasing concern locally, and Boheim attributes much of the violence to marijuana.

“The state of Oklahoma is acting as a cartel attempting to profit from selling drugs through distributors illegally to children, which are then killing themselves and killing each other,” he said in an interview.

Criminal justice reform

A father of two, Kiesel said his concern about minors is that current law allows for their lives to be ruined if they make a mistake with marijuana.

He said what got him involved with recreational marijuana is the same reason for 99% of the donations to the Yes on 820 campaign: “making our criminal justice system more fair and more effective.”

He said the gubernatorial debate illustrates a key point of proponents, when the moderator asked whether Gov. Kevin Stitt or his opponent had used marijuana.

“I think it was very cool of him to say that he had. … Nobody in the room gasped, nobody fainted — everybody just kind of chuckled,” Kiesel said. “It was because the governor admitted to doing something that thousands of other college kids have also done. … I heard him say that and thought ‘Well, I used marijuana in college, too.’

“And the thing Gov. Stitt and I have in common is we were lucky enough not to be caught.”

Kiesel said as many as 60,000 Oklahomans have convictions for small amounts of marijuana, a point echoed by Tulsa County Chief Public Defender Corbin Brewster.

“There’s a real compelling moral argument that if … we’ve accepted that marijuana should not be prosecuted as a crime, that we should address the sentences of those serving prison sentences for possessing marijuana,” Brewster told the Tulsa World.

Many low-income Oklahomans and people of color don’t often have the same luck, Kiesel said.

“I don’t think we should have a criminal justice system where (marijuana) is the basis of how your life turns out,” he said, pointing out how hard it can be to get housing or a job even with a minor drug conviction.

Kunzweiler has said Oklahoma doesn’t need to legalize adult-use marijuana to achieve criminal justice reform, but lawmakers have found it challenging to take on such issues.

Rep. Jon Echols, R-Okmulgee, went so far as to call the Legislature “tone deaf.” He pointed out Oklahoma had a chance to craft laws related to marijuana before a statewide grassroots effort quickly forced the industry into existence. He told Tulsa World in an interview that, if SQ 820 passes, the Legislature should be able to fund the criminal justice reform, an issue he says “is popular now.”

But one of the organizers of that grassroots effort, Chip Paul, said it’s not ideal to put the burden on the Legislature for funding. Paul, among those who helped craft the language of SQ 788, said patients are worried they’ll see program they’ve come to rely on deteriorate.

“I don’t think it’s right, and I certainly don’t think it’s the right law for Oklahoma,” Paul said.

Staff writers Kelsy Schlotthauer and Olivia McCourry contributed reporting to this story.

Video: Gov. Kevin Stitt on SQ820

He says for those who need it, medical cannabis is already available while marijuana remains illegal federally.

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