Marijuana legalization takes a giant step backward

With additional reporting from Ari Hawkins

RIP ‘TOKELAHOMA’ — On Tuesday, Oklahoma slowed the roll of marijuana legalization across the country, voting down full legalization in a referendum by over 20 points.

Since 2018, when voters backed medical marijuana legalization by double-digits, the state has earned the nickname “Tokelahoma,” with roughly 12,000 licensed marijuana businesses and nearly 400,000 patients (in a state with less than four million residents).

This latest result, though, proves that a majority of residents are uninterested in the further expansion of an industry that many Oklahomans complain has spun out of control, with police seemingly raiding a new illegal grow operation every week.

To date, 21 states have legalized recreational marijuana use, while 37 have approved some form of medical marijuana statute. But the product remains illegal at the federal level, which has led to contradictory regulations.

To discuss the state of the legalization movement and the growing backlash, Nightly spoke with Paul Demko, POLITICO’s cannabis editor. This conversation has been edited.

Oklahoma passed a medical marijuana legalization referendum in 2018. What has the state’s experience been with weed since then?

Oklahoma has created the world’s wildest weed market. There were initially no limits on business licenses, and licenses cost just $2,500 to obtain. Local municipalities can’t prohibit marijuana businesses from operating, as they can in most states. There are no qualifying conditions required to enroll in the medical program, so pretty much anyone qualifies. The end result is that there are roughly 12,000 licensed weed businesses in the state and nearly 10 percent of the population is enrolled in the medical program, by far the highest rate in the country.

Over the past decade or so, marijuana legalization has spread pretty rapidly across the country. But on Tuesday, voters in Oklahoma voted against going further. Is this a sign of a broader backlash or are there local factors at play here that are unique to Oklahoma’s experience with marijuana so far?

You can make a case for both. There is a broader backlash, as evidenced by Arkansas, South Dakota and North Dakota all voting down referendums in November. However, the rapid spread of legalization continues, with Maryland and Missouri passing adult-use referendums in November, and legislatures in Minnesota, Kansas and North Carolina, among others, taking up legalization bills this year.

But there were definitely unique circumstances in Oklahoma that caused huge problems for legalization advocates. There have been dozens of raids on illegal grows across the state over the last two years, with law enforcement officials saying that many have ties to organized crime. In November, there was a grisly quadruple homicide at a weed farm in rural Kingfisher County. Both the victims and the alleged assailant were Chinese nationals.

This constant stream of negative headlines has really tarnished the medical program in the eyes of many Oklahomans.

Tell us about the coalitions on both sides of Tuesday’s referendum. Which groups and interests lined up in favor of expansion, and which groups were in opposition? And are these battle lines similar to ones you might see in those other states that you referenced?

The alliance of legalization advocates is definitely familiar from campaigns in other states. Yes on 820 [the pro-legalization advocacy group in Oklahoma] was able to garner major financial support from national groups like the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance and New Approach Advocacy Fund [a pro-legalization PAC]. What was somewhat unusual is that cannabis industry officials and legalization advocates in Oklahoma weren’t united behind the ballot measure. That likely depressed turnout among supporters and really hurt the chances of passage.

The opposition campaign was far more organized than you’ve seen recently in many states. It was chaired by former Republican Gov. Frank Keating and a former state health secretary under a Democratic governor. But perhaps more significantly, law enforcement was extremely galvanized and vocal in their opposition to the ballot measure. Their message was pretty simple and apparently persuasive: Recreational legalization will only make the crime problems associated with the medical program exponentially worse.

Does that speak to why the 2018 referendum passed pretty easily yet it appears that Tuesday’s referendum lost overwhelmingly? Right now, you mentioned North Carolina, Minnesota and Kansas are considering legalization bills. How might pro-legislation groups in those states learn from Oklahoma? How might opponents?

The dynamics were definitely far different from the medical marijuana referendum in 2018. The pitch five years ago was pretty simple: freedom. That’s an argument that resonated with voters of different political stripes and it passed by double digits.

This time around legalization advocates had to contend with the lived reality of the last five years. The proliferation of illegal operations and criminal activity, and just a sense that legalization has dramatically changed the staunchly conservative state, were too much to overcome.

The lesson legalization advocates should take from Oklahoma is that the promise of a safe, taxed, regulated market for a product that millions of Americans already consume better match reality. That’s not what many Oklahomans saw when they looked at the wild proliferation of weed businesses over the last five years. Instead, they saw an industry that operated with few rules and rampant criminal activity.

Legalization opponents will see Oklahoma as a lifeline for stopping the movement. There’s been a sense that something akin to national legalization is inevitable for some time now. In many states, the opposition campaigns have been poorly funded and not very organized in recent years. This could galvanize their efforts.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected] or on Twitter at @calder_mchugh.

White House goes after Tucker Carlson by name over Jan. 6 coverage: The White House joined in widespread condemnation of Fox News star Tucker Carlson earlier today singling out the prime-time ratings king for his misleading portrayal of the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. The White House joined Republican Senate leaders and Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger, who a day earlier assailed Carlson’s broadcasts of selected assault footage as being “filled with offensive and misleading conclusions.”

McCarthy rejects Zelenskyy’s invitation to Ukraine: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s invitation to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to visit the embattled nation amid his hesitancy to greenlight aid was quickly shut down by the California Republican. When informed about the Ukrainian invitation, the speaker said he would not take the trip and held his position that the U.S. should not be sending a “blank check” to Kyiv, repeating a position he initially made last fall that sparked uproar from members of both parties.

Louisville Police Department practices violated Constitution, DOJ finds: The Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government and the Louisville Metro Police Department had patterns of unlawful practices, Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a press conference in Louisville this afternoon. The DOJ investigation, the results of which Garland announced today, was launched after Louisville police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor in 2020. That shooting sparked nationwide protests and calls for police reform.

NOT SHERMAN-ESQUE — Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who announced that he wouldn’t seek the Republican presidential nomination on Sunday, refused to close the door on a potential third-party bid in 2024. In an interview with ABC News, the moderate Republican said “I haven’t ruled that out [running as an independent]. But it’s not something I’m really working toward or thinking about… [though] the question keeps popping up more and more.”

TBILISI CLASHES — Riot police clashed with thousands of protestors on the streets of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, overnight after the country’s parliament passed the first reading of a law that would require media organizations that receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.”

Opposition lawmakers and international critics say the measure — which appears to have broad support among Georgian lawmakers — underscore a pattern of unraveling democratic norms, and could threaten the country’s bid to join the European Union, Ari Hawkins reports for Nightly.

Police used tear gas and water houses to disburse the demonstrators, many of whom were spotted waving Georgian, EU and Ukrainian flags and chanting “no to the Russian law.”

Another round of protests took place earlier today, led by lawmakers who oppose the legislation. Nika Melia, a former member of the United National Movement party, vowed that “no matter how many times they disperse us, no matter how much gas they use, we will gather again and again, and there should be more and more of us.”

The bill, which still must be signed by the president, would compel media publications and NGOs that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as agents of a foreign state, or face steep fines. Critics have compared the legislation to laws in Hungary and Russia, which used similar policies to crush democratic norms.

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili has also slammed the bill, and vowed not to sign the law if it crosses her desk. But the ruling party’s control over parliament means they could override her veto.

“U.S. officials, NATO officials, and EU officials are increasingly wary about dealing with Georgia, because they don’t feel that it can be a reliable partner, compared to countries that are making good faith efforts to push through these kinds of reforms like Ukraine or Moldova,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While the country won its independence from Russia in 1991, Moscow has maintained strong financial links to the ruling party, and tensions between the Georgian public and Russia worsened after the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.

Georgia has applied to the European Union for candidate status, but EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that the bill was “incompatible with EU values and standards”.

Foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also slammed the law and advised the country against “decisions that may undermine aspirations of Georgia’s people to live in a democratic country which is advancing towards the EU and NATO.”

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the law “would strike at some of the very rights that are central to the aspirations of the people of Georgia.”

Georgia applied for EU membership in March of last year. Ukraine and Moldova, who also applied at the onset of the Russian invasion, were granted candidate status in June.

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