Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly rejected recreational marijuana legalization at the ballot on Tuesday, hitting the brakes on what’s become the country’s wildest weed market over the last five years.
The Associated Press called the contest with roughly two thirds of precincts counted and the petition failing by a more than 20-point margin.
The state’s booming medical program — with roughly 12,000 licensed businesses and nearly 400,000 enrolled patients — won’t be immediately impacted by the election defeat.
But many marijuana legalization advocates fear that the outcome will embolden state lawmakers who have long been wary of the freewheeling medical program to step up their efforts to put stricter limits on the marketplace.
“The anti-revolutionary forces want to return Oklahoma to their dream of this bygone era,” said Lawrence Pasternack, a legalization advocate who’s written extensively about the state’s weed experiment. “They see marijuana as anathema to that dream.”
The rejection of the Oklahoma referendum marks the latest ballot failure for legalization advocates in recent months. Voters in Arkansas, South Dakota and North Dakota defeated legalization referendums in November, while voters in Maryland and Missouri approved adult-use legalization petitions.
Oklahoma voters backed medical marijuana legalization by a double-digit margin in 2018, despite overwhelming opposition from elected officials, health care groups and business interests.
The medical program doesn’t require a pre-existing condition to qualify, so pretty much anyone can get a medical card. There were also initially no limits on business licenses, and they cost just $2,500. But last year lawmakers implemented a two-year moratorium on new licenses that took effect in August.
Legalization supporters touted the potential economic benefits of full legalization, particularly the tax windfall that would come from out-of-state shoppers from Texas and other neighboring states.
They emphasized that passage of the referendum would allow people with cannabis-related criminal convictions to have their records expunged, as well as enable people serving time for those charges to petition to have their sentences reduced or scrapped.
But the referendum’s backers faced serious headwinds from a constant stream of law enforcement raids on illegal grows over the last two years. In addition, there were some headline-grabbing crimes associated with weed farms, most notably the quadruple murder of four Chinese nationals in November.
An opposition campaign chaired by former Republican Gov. Frank Keating relied heavily on law-enforcement officials to make the case that recreational legalization would open up the state up to even more criminal behavior and endanger kids.
There are now 37 states with comprehensive medical programs, while 21 states allow anyone at least 21 years old to legally possess weed.