In 1997, Will Foster, then 38, was sentenced to 93 years in an Oklahoma state prison for growing a small cannabis garden in a locked bomb shelter under his home in Tulsa. Foster, a U.S. military veteran with no prior criminal record, wasn’t dealing weed – he had been cultivating cannabis to treat his psoriatic arthritis, a painful, degenerative disease. The Court subsequently reduced Foster’s sentence to 20 years, and he was eventually paroled after waging a lengthy battle against a draconian legal system.
Today, Foster is back in Tulsa, a free man, operating a licensed medical marijuana business. This unexpected turn of events is emblematic of the transformation that is taking place in Oklahoma, which legalized cannabis for therapeutic use in 2018, despite opposition from the Okie political establishment.
Oklahoma, surprisingly, is now the fastest growing medical cannabis market in America. Just one year after the passage of State Question 788 (S.Q. 788) there are already 154,890 approved patients and caregivers, according to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA), and business licenses have been issued to over 3,559 growers, just over 940 processors, and 1,673 dispensaries, although it is unclear just how many cannabis storefronts and delivery services have actually opened thus far. But it’s safe to say that total number of dispensaries in the Sooner State easily exceeds the number of licensed cannabis dispensaries that are up and running in much larger and more populated states like Ohio, Florida, and California.
Officially the 30th state to pass a medical cannabis law, Oklahoma is unique in the regulated national landscape. Barriers to entry for both patients and business are lower than any other state. There are no set qualifying conditions to become a patient, but rather it is left to the discretion of the recommending doctor. All patients can grow six mature plants at home. There are no license caps and each business license application costs just $2,500.
Red state reefer
Oklahoma’s cannabis industry has expanded rapidly since the first sales began in early December 2018. Although much of the early product that moved through the stores may have been brought in illegally from other states, local producers are starting to roll out locally produced products and brands.
In March 2019, what is being called “The Unity Bill” (H.B. 2612) easily passed through the state legislature and into law with bipartisan support and input from cannabis advocates as well as from other groups the legislature considers to be stakeholders: law enforcement, banks, chambers of commerce, and relevant government agencies.
When new regulations under H.B. 2612 come into effect in August, all product will be subject to seed-to-sale tracking, childproof packaging and lab testing and labeling requirements. Certain protections are added for legal medical cannabis patients, who are benefiting from a wide range of available product options. The restrictions on public consumption of vaporized or smoked cannabis are exactly in line with restrictions around public tobacco smoking.
Compared to markets in larger states and those where recreational cannabis is legal, Oklahoma’s medical cannabis market is somewhat of an anomaly. It has generated a lot of pride on the ground among local advocates. Not only have they achieved what was once considered unachievable in Oklahoma, they have staunchly defended the right to local ownership and opportunity, while out-of-state vulture capitalists invade larger markets.
The quick roll-out of the medical marijuana program in Oklahoma has ensured that the state’s small businesses will have a chance to gain traction and survive until federal law changes and a national market opens. Thus far, the home-grown cannabis market has proven more lucrative for Oklahoma in comparison to other state level programs, which are typically more expensive, more restrictive, and more favorable to cartel-like production and distribution schemes. According to the Associated Press, retailers in Oklahoma sold $23 million worth of cannabis in May 2019 alone and the seven percent cannabis tax and associated sales taxes have netted over $10 million since legal commerce began in December – and it is just getting started.
A fair chance to compete
Isaac Caviness and Joshua Lewelling of Okie Express Transport & Sales were busy for years working to legalize medical cannabis in Oklahoma, and now they are even busier delivering it to retailers. They spend long days on the road transporting product to dispensaries in Tulsa and the eastern part of the state. While the state’s two major metropolitan regions, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, have hundreds of dispensaries (with more opening every day), even small rural towns are getting in on the action.
Caviness and Lewelling can’t keep up with demand. At each dispensary product flies off the shelves, and they always hear the same question from store owners, “How much can we buy from you today?” Caviness and Lewelling explain that they would sell out of product at a single dispensary if they didn’t plan to spread it out.
Business is good now, but Lewelling and Caviness know there will be a reckoning in the market at some point. As more producers come online, a larger volume of higher quality locally grown and manufactured product will hit the shelves, new regulations will be enforced, and some businesses won’t be able survive. While the reckoning is predictable, every cannabis advocate in Oklahoma feels that the people who worked to pass the law should get a fair chance to compete, even if they fail.
Before the passage of S.Q. 788, Caviness operated Hemp RX, a “CBD dispensary” that sold a variety of cannabis products low enough in THC to legally be considered hemp. A sizable hemp-CBD retail market sprang up in in Oklahoma in response to the passage of Katie’s Law in 2015, which legalized the use of CBD oil for epileptic children but created no regulatory framework for production and distribution. Many CBD businesses have since converted into licensed full-service cannabis dispensaries, but some still continue to operate outside the medical cannabis framework, choosing instead to focus on selling CBD products primarily to pediatric and geriatric demographics.
Beyond CBD only
“CBD-only” was not good enough for Cavinenss and Lewelling, who converted Hemp Rx into an around-the-clock voter registration and signature-drive headquarters in an effort to legalize medical cannabis, not just a single component of the plant. They co-founded the organization Green the Vote, which organized advocates around the state and coordinated voter and signature drives in support of State Question 788. Sponsored by Oklahomans for Health, the medical cannabis ballot measure was ignored by national organizations like Marijuana Policy Project, which dismissed the effort as pointless in conservative Oklahoma.
“We had no national support,” Caviness said. “We made triangle boards with the pictures of sick kids and families who had to leave for Colorado [to access cannabis]. We stood in front of gas stations and we talked to people about why.”
A map of Oklahoma lays underneath a glass bowl packed with cannabis. A cannabis bud sits next to the pipe.
The entire process was a grassroots effort. Over the course of five years and four petition drives, a politically bipartisan and dedicated network of activists emerged. With the help of social media, they expanded their networks throughout the state. “We registered tens of thousands of people to vote,” Caviness said.
On the fifth try, they qualified S.Q. 788 for the 2016 general election ballot. But then-state Attorney General Scott Pruitt (later a disgraced Trump cabinet appointee) effectively prevented the vote by creating delays and inaccurately re-writing the ballot initiative title to make it seem as if the measure would legalize “recreational” use. Oklahomans for Health sued and prevailed in the state Supreme Court on March 27, 2017.
Gov. Mary Fallin scheduled S.Q. 788 for a vote on June 26, 2018. According to Chip Paul, co-author of the law and co-founder of Oklahomans for Health, medical cannabis advocates were outspent 12-to-1 by opponents yet still won with 57% of the vote in a state-record high voter turnout. Paul says the idea behind much of the design of the cannabis market under S.Q. 788 came from watching what he and others felt to be the fatal flaws in medical legislation enacted in other states.
Thus far, the program has survived legislative attacks at all levels of the state government. In July 2018, for example, Oklahoma’s Department of Health (DOH) proposed onerous regulations that would remove access to flower, require pregnancy tests for women of child-bearing age, and impose business license caps. But Attorney General Mike Hunter warned that the DOH did not have the authority to regulate medical cannabis in a way that’s inconsistent with the statute as written. By early August the DOH reneged and began implementing temporary regulations and issuing licenses and patient cards as compelled by the language of the citizen initiative.
Many medical cannabis entrepreneurs and patients in Oklahoma are veterans – of both foreign wars and the ongoing war on drugs. “People have made real sacrifices. This is an industry that people have gone to prison for to get here,” said Isaac Caviness. Today his company, Okie Express Transport & Sales, is the exclusive distributor for Herblix, a newly licensed cannabis cultivation business run by Will Foster, the erstwhile poster boy for drug war depravity.
Foster’s shocking 93-year sentence for a growing a small medical cannabis garden epitomized the mid-1990s wave of “tough on crime” laws, which involved life sentences for non-violent drug offences, law enforcement hoarding of civil asset forfeiture spoils, and a close relationship between the Sooner State and America’s largest private prison corporations. As a result, Oklahoma currently has the highest rate of incarceration in the nation and the world.
Oklahoma activists, buoyed by the successful grassroots campaign to legalize medical cannabis, are pushing for major changes in the Sooner state’s grotesque criminal justice system. A package of criminal justice reform legislation was introduced earlier this year, but only one piece of legislation passed. Advocates vow to take it up again next year.
Read more about Will Foster’s story here.
Angela Bacca is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance journalist with a MBA and 10 years experience in cannabis media. She specializes in coverage of cannabis in conservative states, science, medicine, politics, business, culture and media.
Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.