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In the air

Debate over medical marijuana regulations ensues as a special legislative session appears unlikely.

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from left Oklahoma Cannabis Trade Association members Ryan Early, Chris Moe, Chance Gilbert, Chip Paul, Kyle Early and Scott Huffman hold a news conference at Can-Tek Labs. - BEN LUSCHEN
  • Ben Luschen
  • from left Oklahoma Cannabis Trade Association members Ryan Early, Chris Moe, Chance Gilbert, Chip Paul, Kyle Early and Scott Huffman hold a news conference at Can-Tek Labs.

For months, there was talk that if State Question 788 won majority support from voters, Oklahoma lawmakers would need to go into special session to set up regulatory framework governing how a medical marijuana program would function in the state. Gov. Mary Fallin even publicly predicted that such a special session would be necessary as recently as a week before the June 26 primary election.

Then, days after the passage of SQ788, Fallin announced she no longer believed lawmaker intervention would be needed for the implementation of medical marijuana and that the Oklahoma State Health Department should be left to establish needed guidelines for the new law.

Assuming no special session is called, legislators interested in affecting the new law will still get a crack at it during the next regular legislative session in February. Still, those interested in applying for medical cannabis licenses can begin submitting applications in August.

Oklahomans for Health co-founder Chip Paul believes the lack of special session gives the fledgling medical marijuana industry an opportunity to prove itself in the state.

“If we can operate a program for awhile and basically prove the merits of the program, I think that’ll be a big deal in the upcoming legislative session,” Paul said.

Aside from heading the Oklahomans for Health advocacy organization, Paul is one of several co-founders behind the new Oklahoma Cannabis Trade Association. The group is primarily intended to promote the industry and facilitate collaboration within it, but it is now working with the health department to help establish regulations.

The health department cannot do anything to the medical marijuana law that was approved by state voters, but it can affect the regulations needed to facilitate that law. Paul, during a recent Oklahoma Cannabis Trade Association news conference at Can-Tek Labs, said he is optimistic that lawmakers will respect the spirit of SQ788 during next year’s legislative session.

“The attitude of the lawmakers I’ve spoke to has been this: ‘You guys won the day. You put a law on the books. We will not change that law,’” he said.

Chance Gilbert, president of the new trade organization, said the group’s guiding principle is a loyalty to patients and the law as approved by voters.

“We want to communicate to everybody that we want to be there for the people to be their voice after the 788 vote,” Gilbert said. “That’s what’s important to us and that’s why I wanted to bring everyone together, to just be that singular voice, because we know that’s important.”

The dust is still settling in the aftermath of SQ788’s victory. Because medical marijuana is a new thing in the state, there is a lot of confusion around how it will look and work, both for prospective patients and for those interested in the business end of the industry. Oklahoma Cannabis Trade Association hopes to clear some of that air.

“People don’t really understand yet what’s going on,” Paul said. “That’ll be something that the trade organization will be able to help manage and communicate.”

Crafting language

A draft of the Department of Health’s proposed rules for implementation can be read at the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority’s website omma.ok.gov. Paul said he was thrilled when he saw the Department of Health had put out a proposal of their own volition. A meeting to vote on proposed rules was pending at Oklahoma Gazette press time.

“I was shocked when the Department of Health actually came out with stuff,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yeah!’”

Chris Moe, a medical marijuana business advocate and member of the trade organization, said he is very encouraged by the fact that the Department of Health has shown initiative in putting something together.

“That was the argument from the no side, that the health department wasn’t ready to handle this,” Moe said. “The fact that the health department stepped up and they’re ready to play ball is a good thing.”

The proposed rules cover everything from the documentation required to obtain a medical marijuana license to standards for recommending physicians and requirements for retail facilities and labeling.

One passage states that no products should be made in a way intended to attract children, like animal-shaped gummies or candies. Another prohibits doctors from recommending a license to co-workers, family members or women who are pregnant.

The proposal also lists procedures for laboratory regulation and testing protocol. 

Paul said the medical marijuana industry agrees with the great majority of the regulatory framework outlined by the Department of Health. But there are some areas in which the two sides differ — for instance, proposed limits to the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in medical marijuana products. The working draft of the Department of Health regulations also requires those seeking research licenses to be subjected to a background check, and they could be denied if they have a prior felony, something with which Paul doesn’t agree.

“To own a business, yeah, we get that,” he said, regarding felony restrictions. “But these are really good work release programs and things like that.”

The trade association has had at least one meeting with the Department of Health. In a video posted on Oklahomans for Health’s Facebook page, Moe said the meeting was productive and relieving.

“I fully believe this is going to work out the way we want it,” he said. “I can say there isn’t one single part of the home grow regulations they want to enact that I have a problem with.”

Path of failure?

Oklahoma Cannabis Trade Association is not the only medical marijuana trade organization operating in the state. Another group, New Health Solutions Oklahoma, is less optimistic about what the lack of a special session means for the future of medical marijuana in the state.

Executive director Bud Scott said the language of SQ788 was intentionally kept loose and didn’t have any of the enabling language. All sides had the understanding that lawmakers would chisel out those rules in special session.

Scott believes not holding a special session is an attempt by opponents to set SQ788 up for failure.

“Clearly they understand that this is the best way to stop this program,” he said. “They didn’t just become supporters of this program overnight, and it’s naive to think as much.”

Scott said most lawmakers opposed to SQ788 did not want a special session before the November elections because vocal opposition to a popular measure would have jeopardized their electability.

“The elections are the only thing holding these guys accountable,” he said. “Once that’s done, they don’t have an election for two years.”

New Health Solutions, Scott said, has been supportive of the Department of Health from the beginning. He said their proposals for quality control provisions and testing provisions closely reflect the suggestions New Health Solutions submitted to the department months ago. The group does not support other proposals, like limits to THC.

“Honestly, I think it’s arguable whether the Oklahoma State Department of Health has the authority to do any of its rulemaking,” Scott said, “particularly on subjects that are completely silent in 788.”

He is also afraid that the Department of Health’s lack of legislative authority sets medical marijuana up for litigation gridlock as soon as they start accepting money for applications. Other states that have approved marijuana have had their programs delayed over pending litigation.

“That is very clearly the path [state lawmakers are] laying out there,” Scott said.

New Health Solutions is still pushing for a special session, though it said attempts to directly contact Fallin have not been successful. Scott feels that a special session might be the only way to ensure the timely and unchallenged implementation of medical marijuana.

“We either address it now and do it right and get something that everyone can live with that’s a functional program,” he said, “or we go down that path which means we may not be any closer to cannabis than we were June 25th.” 

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