Listen to this article here

I’ll be the first to admit it. I had hope Oklahoma voters would come together on Tuesday to end the failed war on drugs. Instead, our state rejected the legalization of recreational marijuana, and it wasn’t even close.

Supporters of State Question 820 billed it as a criminal justice reform bill. The measure would’ve legalized the sale and purchase of up to eight ounces of cannabis with no medical card required for adults 21 and over. The initiative also would’ve retroactively reduced sentences and expunged certain minor marijuana-related convictions. Yet voters rejected the measure, with nearly 62% voting against.

In a state that passed the least restrictive medical marijuana industry in the nation just a few years ago, how did this proposal for full legalization fail so miserably?

Product is displayed at a Mango Cannabis medical marijuana dispensary, Monday, March 6, 2023, in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma voters will decide Tuesday whether to make the state one of the most conservative to green light cannabis use for adults. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Did low voter turnout cause SQ 820’s demise?

Some have pointed to the fact that instead of placing the measure on the Nov. 2022 ballot, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration delayed counting the signatures. It resulted in the courts allowing him to move the measure to March.

He certainly didn’t hide his opposition to the proposal.

“Oklahomans rejected SQ 820. I believe this is the best thing to keep our kids safe and for our state as a whole,” Stitt said in a statement Tuesday night.

According to the Oklahoma Election Board, 50% of the state’s eligible voters turned out for the general election in November while only a quarter of them showed up on Tuesday.

Going into the election, legal marijuana was the only issue voters had to decide. And the expected result was unusually unclear. The last poll on SQ820 was conducted in October, and there hadn’t been a ballot initiative placed outside a general or primary election since 2005, according to Oklahoma Watch.

Was voter turnout just too low? Would the result have been different if more Oklahomans were aware, energized and able to access the polls?

Or did Oklahoma’s black market spook voters?

Others have pointed to the fact that voters, who approved medical marijuana in 2018 by nearly 57%, simply didn’t want the illegalities surrounding the industry to become any more widespread. It’s an issue newly elected Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, Republican, seized on before and after the vote.

“Regardless of where one stands on the question of marijuana legalization, the stark reality is that organized crime from China and Mexico has infiltrated Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry,” Drummond said in a statement Tuesday night.

Some voters expressed outrage at his phrasing of the issue. Yet he’s not wrong about illicit activities causing violence in rural counties.

In December, 45-year-old Wu Chen was charged with killing four Chinese nationals at an illegal medical marijuana grow facility in Kingfisher County. Prosecutors allege he demanded $300,000 from employees for his investment in the illegal operation before opening fire.

And during his short time in office, AG Drummond has investigated numerous prostitution rings among other illegal activities surrounding these illegal operations, which authorities claim number in the hundreds.

Did the Yes on SQ 820 Campaign fail to give voice to these concerns that primarily impact rural voters? According to election results, even rural counties that marginally supported medical marijuana in 2018 overwhelming voted against full legalization on Tuesday.

Was criminal justice reform not a priority for Oklahoma voters?

Lastly, some voters who supported full legalization blamed the Yes on SQ 820 Campaign for not being vocal enough about how the proposal would impact criminal justice.

Despite anyone being able to access medical marijuana if they have a medical card, marijuana possession is still criminally outlawed in the state, and thousands of people, disproportionately Black Oklahomans, face charges each year, according to Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform.

Unlike measures in other states, SQ 820 was an opportunity to prevent simple marijuana possession from creating barriers to housing, employment and education for thousands of working people.

But did enough Oklahoma voters know that? Would voters have supported decriminalization without full legalization?

“This wasn’t about legalizing marijuana, this was about keeping Oklahomans out of the criminal justice system,” campaign advisor Ryan Kiesel said after the failed vote, according to Oklahoma Watch.

Law officers in support of No on 820 attend a rally on the south plaza of the Capitol in Oklahoma City on Monday, March 6, 2023. Oklahoma voters will decide Tuesday, March, 6, 2023, whether to make the state one of the most conservative to green light cannabis use for adults. (Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman via AP)

Where do we go from here?

The short answer is that low voter turnout, concerns over a violent black market, and ineffective messaging all likely contributed to the lopsided rejection of recreational marijuana in Oklahoma. So, what’s next?

Ultimately, with marijuana remaining illegal on the federal level, the only option left is for the Oklahoma State Legislature to take action independently.

Even AG Drummond expressed support for facilitating the expungement of certain records if the legislature takes action.

“This thought crossed my head when Gov. Stitt said he smoked pot in college. And I thought, what if he had been arrested? His life would’ve taken a different path,” Drummond told The Black Wall Street Times days before the vote.

“If it does not pass, I do think in the spirit of criminal justice reform, marijuana possession and consumption should be addressed. And there should be a mechanism considered by the legislature that I’m happy to administer toward the expungement of those things.”

His call appeared to be answered Tuesday night by Rep. Kevin McDugle, a conservative lawmaker who has become an unlikely ally to criminal justice reformers.

“The Legislature is going to have to get off their tail and pass some legislation,” McDugle (R-Broken Arrow) said at the Yes on 820 watch party Tuesday night. “We’ve got to get rid of the black market. The only way to do that honestly is to regulate the whole thing.” 

Can progressives create a coalition with conservatives to make that happen? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, the state continues to produce a two-tiered system, where a person can be arrested for possessing a pocket-full of a natural herb that another person sales and distributes legally in the same community.

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...