Oklahoma votes down legal weed. Here’s what Virginia can learn from that.

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The reefer madness we were warned about has finally happened, just not in the way we were told.

This time it’s cannabis legalization advocates who are freaking out after Oklahoma last week voted down legal weed.

This came as a shock to some because Oklahoma in 2018 had voted by a wide margin — 56.8% to 42.2% — to legalize medical marijuana. Since then, Oklahoma has discovered it has a surprising number of patients in need of medical marijuana — nearly 400,000 people in a state of only about 4 million people. That’s one in every 10 Oklahomans. To service that medical — or should we say “medical”? — demand, some 12,000 licensed cannabis businesses have sprung up. (And apparently lots of unlicensed ones, because Politico reports that are police are “seemingly raiding a new illegal grow operation every week.”)

All this has earned Oklahoma the nickname “Tokelahoma.”

So when Oklahoma voters this week rejected expanding medical marijuana into full-fledged recreational marijuana, the reaction went like this: “Marijuana legalization takes a giant step backwards.”

Oklahoma voters didn’t just say no, they said NO. 

While 56.8% voted in favor of medical marijuana, this time 61.68% rejected recreational marijuana.

With one state after another legalizing the devil’s lettuce, does this represent some kind of about-face in public opinion? Or is this a fluke? 

My knowledge of Oklahoma is formed mostly by Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” which starts off “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” and is obviously outdated because I find at least 16 medical marijuana dispensaries listed in that city. These include Big Papa’s Okie Toke, Foreva Buzzin, Ounce House, Smoke-Out, Blaze-N-Bake, or, for those who prefer something with a more authoritative-sounding name for their “medical” needs, Johnny D’s Medical Dispensary.

Still, the question remains: Why did Oklahoma seemingly change its mind? 

The relevance to us: Virginia currently is positioned in a legal gray area on cannabis. In 2021, the General Assembly legalized personal possession for recreational purposes but has yet to set up a legal retail market. In other words, you can have it, you can even grow a few plants, you just can’t buy it or sell it — which means most people who choose to toke up are, um, buying from black market pot dealers. It’s a bit like saying whiskey is legal to drink but no one can buy it or sell it. Moonshiners would love that. 

I’ve written before about the politics of this: Virginia legalized cannabis when Democrats had full control of the governorship and legislature. They intended to come back the next year to work on a retail market but didn’t count on losing the governorship and House of Delegates that fall. It’s not as simple as Democrats versus Republicans. It’s more like Democrats versus Republicans versus other Republicans. Democrats want retail rules based on their sense of social justice, giving preference in licensing to those previously convicted of marijuana offenses. Republicans think that’s rewarding law-breaking. Some are OK with a retail market but want it based more on free-market rules. Others don’t want anything to do with legalized cannabis at all. There aren’t the votes to overturn legalization, nor are there the votes to complete it. Perhaps this fall’s General Assembly elections will resolve that impasse — or only widen and deepen the chasm between the two, um, three sides.

Whether the Democratic version or the Republican version prevails, the assumption is that both would contain the same provision — that localities will hold referendums on whether they want to allow retail cannabis stores. (The original Democratic bill was set up to presume that stores are allowed unless a locality held a referendum to prohibit them.)

That part has always captured my attention. I’ve followed the votes in other states to see what lessons we might be able to apply to Virginia. Generally speaking, the pro-legalization vote has always run behind the usual Republican vote in those states, meaning that a) Democratic localities have voted in favor of legalization, b) strongly Republican localities have voted against legalization but c) some competitive or mildly Republican localites have also voted in favor of legalization. 

If Virginia localities voted the same way, which localities would legalize weed sales?

In January, I looked at recent elections in Arkansas and South Dakota to come up with this map:

Based on elections in Arkansas and South Dakota, here’s how Virginia localities might vote on retail sales.

That was based on low turnout elections. If there were higher turnout, the map might look like this:

Here’s how localities might vote on retail sales in a presidential-level turnout, based on results in South Dakota.

You can read all my insightful analysis about how those elections might translate to Virginia, but the short version is that the larger the turnout, the more likely it is that a conservative locality would vote to legalize weed. Hard-core conservative voters are just that — hard-core against legalization. More marginal conservative voters tend to be more in favor. So the question now is: Does the Oklahoma election change those calculations any? And, if so, how?

Before we answer those questions, we need to look more closely at the election returns. 

Here’s the first big thing to know. When Oklahomans legalized medical marijuana in 2018, there were 892,758 people casting votes. In last week’s vote, 566,004 did. That’s obviously a big drop-off. This is exactly what I observed in my previous column about two different referendums in South Dakota. A low turnout election is bad for legal weed advocates, a bigger turnout election is more likely to bring success.

Here’s another way to look at that. In 2018, when legal medical marijuana was approved, there were 385,176 “no” votes. In last week’s referendum, the “no” vote was actually smaller — 349,121. In other words, the opposition to legal weed in any form in Oklahoma has declined. The recreational marijuana amendment failed because those on the “yes” side simply didn’t bother to vote — the yes vote fell  from 507,582 in 2018 to 216,883 last week.

There are a lot of reasons why all those former “yes” voters might have stayed home. Off-cycle elections are hard to generate turnout for. The 2018 vote coincided with Republican primary elections, including a 10-way (!) contest for the gubernatorial nomination. The 2023 vote was only for the marijuana referendum. 

It’s also entirely possible that with so many people in Oklahoma professing medical problems that require marijuana, they felt no need to legalize it further — it already seems pretty widely available. Afroman Cannabis in Muskogee advertises that it’s open until 2 a.m.; both drive-through and curbside pickup is available. The Bob Marley Prepacked is $30 for an eighth of an ounce. Those on a budget might consider the Murder Mint Flowers, which are $20 for one-eighth of an ounce. There’s currently a special on the Member Berry Flower, which is marked down to $16 for an eighth of an ounce. For those who prefer edibles, the Escalated Green Nacho Cheese Coma Corn is $10 for 200 mg. 

So I’m not sure this Oklahoma vote is indicative of anything. In a low turnout election, a conservative state voted in a predictably conservative way. Had turnout been higher, that conservative state might well have done what it did five years before, which was to vote in a more unpredictable way — which is actually becoming more predictable. While Virginia is a big fan of holding elections of some sort every year, Virginia is less of a fan of holding elections at odd times. In fact, the push in recent years (driven by Democrats) has been to move May municipal elections to November when turnout is higher — so it’s safe to assume that if Virginia held local referendums on cannabis stores, those would be in a November election. The only questions are which November, and what other races might be on the ballot to help drive turnout. A presidential or a gubernatorial election would generate higher turnout than a legislative cycle such as this year’s, when many districts will probably have candidates unopposed because so many districts are either strongly Republican or strongly Democratic. 

The Oklahoma vote is interesting — everything is interesting — but I don’t think it’s predictive. Until we get better evidence, I’ll stick with my earlier analysis: Lots of conservative counties in Virginia (though certainly not all) might well vote to allow legal weed stores. Then we, too, can argue about the relative merits of the Forbidden Xkittes Flower ($4 per gram) versus the Holy Chem Pie Flower ($20 per one-eighth ounce).

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