Subverting The Will Of The People Of Oklahoma

As many of you are probably aware, State Question 788 regarding medical marijuana recently passed by 57%, in one of the largest (if not the largest) voter turnout in recent history. Personally, I have no issues with medical marijuana and this diary is not about the pros and cons of the subject, nor about the way the question was written. It is, however, about those who are opposed to marijuana for any and all reasons trying to make it close to impossible to implement the measure.

Today, the Oklahoma State Board of Health, supported by the Oklahoma State Medical Association (and surely in turn also supported by the American Medical Association), amended some of the rules of the initiative to (1) Ban smokable forms of marijuana sold in dispensaries (flower, dry leaf or plant form) and (2) Require a licensed pharmacist to be present in all dispensaries during operational hours. Let’s look briefly at the effect of each change.

First is the banning of smokable plant forms of medical marijuana. To be clear, this ruling only affects marijuana products sold in a licensed dispensary. It does not affect home-grown plants for personal consumption. Although not specifically stated in the text of 788, smoking marijuana in a plant-based form is the most common method of ingestion, hence providing a sort of precedence in the way it is consumed. As well, certain methods of consumption are more efficient in delivering the desired effect in whatever medical condition is being treated. In other conditions, edibles or an ointment may be more effective. Banning smokable plant-based forms leaves some patients without the best or perhaps even the only form of treatment for their particular condition. To the best of my recollection, the opposition had no objection to plant-based smokables specifically, although they kept claiming  that we “needed to do it right” without putting forth any propositions of their own.

Second is the requirement that a licensed pharmacist be present during operating hours. This will effectively kill nearly every opportunity to start new small businesses across the state. We have two schools of pharmacy, one at the University of Oklahoma and one at Southwestern Oklahoma State University (my alma mater). When I think of all the pharmacy students I knew and hung out with in college, there are very few that I can imagine wanting to “be present” in a medical marijuana dispensary that they do not own themselves. While it is possible and likely probable there is a certain number of pharmacists who will own and operate a dispensary (having decided to do so prior to today’s rule change), the majority of planned dispensaries will now cease to exist before they have a chance to open. Even if enough pharmacists could be found to “be present” as an employee, the average salary for a pharmacist in Oklahoma is $126,000 (not including benefits). Only a few urban dispensaries will be able to afford to pay that kind of salary on day one and still be able to afford any other employees.  Granted, the initial boom will provide plenty of capital for a while, but as with all new businesses, the numbers will taper off and even out, which will be the point where the viability of the pharmacist’s salary will be determined. As well, the pharmacist could effectively decide the days and hours of operation because the shop can only be open when they are present. One small bright spot is pharmacists are necessary and required in order to dispense FDA approved medications. It could be argued that since medical marijuana is still banned on the federal level, a pharmacist cannot be required to be present.

Lawsuits are being prepared and filed. It appears the ACLU will be involved. Normally, I’m skeptical of anything the ACLU is a part of, but in this one instance it may be a good thing. A petition is already circulating to amend the state constitution, making medical marijuana legal in a way that cannot be changed without further amendment. I would not be surprised if this gained enough signatures to find its way onto the November ballot. Governor Fallin could refuse to approve the new rules. She did refuse to call a special session to “tweak” 788 after it passed, which is probably what led to today’s announcement of new rules. She is not a fan of 788, but she did recognize that the people had spoken.

Oklahomans are angry. This was a true grass-roots initiative, written by lay people. Many who did not vote for 788 now say they will sign the petition mentioned above. State legislators’ email and voicemail are exploding with messages from constituents expressing their ire at the “powers that be” interfering once again with measures passed by the voters. You see, in 2016 we passed criminal justice reforms that were not perfect, but sorely needed as Oklahoma reached the #1 spot in number of incarcerations in the nation and by some accounts, the world – most for nonviolent crimes (another diary for another time perhaps). Those measures have yet to take effect and who knows if they ever will. The opposition claimed the voters didn’t understand what they were doing and all but called us stupid to our faces. A great many incumbents were voted out of office, rightly or wrongly, in part because of this.

Regardless of how you feel about medical marijuana, I hope you agree that once the voters have spoken, elected officials have an obligation to support their constituents even if they are opposed to the measures passed. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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