Oklahoma Goes Green

Story by Roger Moore

It is a debate that has raged long before Oklahoma Territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907, before a few Kansans settled near Stillwater Creek, even before the original colonies became the United States in the eighteenth century. In fact, just uttering the word “marijuana” brings about immediate discussion of the pros and cons of a plant that has any number of uses.

The current debate focuses on medicinal marijuana, stemming from the June 26, 2018 vote that saw 57 percent of Oklahoma voters approve State Question 788, legalizing marijuana for any medical use on a doctor’s recommendation. The literature established one of the nation’s most liberal medical marijuana laws in what is considered one of the most politically conservative states. A “Red” state such as Oklahoma does not necessarily agree with an abundance of government control. Unlike other states going through the process, Oklahoma officials created no list of qualifying medical conditions in order to receive a license.

Only one thing is certain in this debate: it will continue to evolve. Stillwater and Norman, the state’s two largest college towns, had, as of early January, 45 combined dispensaries. So, why and how has marijuana become the elephant in the room?

Marijuana, also known as cannabis or pot, was originally cultivated in parts of Asia as an herbal medicine as early as 500 BCE. Cannabis cultivation in America dates to the early colonists, who grew hemp for textiles and rope. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis sativa plant species that is grown specifically for the industrial uses of its derived products. Hemp fiber was used to make clothing, paper, sails and rope, and because of its many uses was grown throughout colonial America and at Spanish missions in the Southwest. The early colonial-era plants had low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for mind-altering effects. Research brought about further uses for the plant.

By the 1830s, pharmacies and doctors sold cannabis extracts to treat stomach problems and other ailments. THC was shown to be the source of cannabis’ medicinal properties, especially in regards to its ability to lessen nausea. Not until the early 1900s was marijuana used for recreational purposes. Many Mexicans, fleeing during the Mexican Revolution, introduced the practice of smoking marijuana to American culture. The unemployment and social unrest of 1930s America brought about resentment of Mexican immigrants and a public fear of the “evil weed.” Racism of the period also associated prominent marijuana usage with the African-American community. Right in line with the Prohibition-era’s view of all intoxicants, 29 states outlawed cannabis by 1933 and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first federal U.S. law to criminalize marijuana nationwide. The Act imposed an excise tax on the sale, possession or transfer of hemp products. The 1936 film “Reefer Madness” illustrates the hysteria of the time in regards to misunderstood and unsubstantiated claims.

Following the tumultuous 1960s, the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, signed by President Richard Nixon, repealed the Marijuana Tax Act and listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy with no medical uses and a high potential for abuse. Two years later, in 1972, the Shafer Commission released a report titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” The report recommended “partial prohibition” and lower criminal penalties. Nixon and government officials ignored the report. Continued research into cannabis has invited yet more questions, but over the last two decades there has been changes in attitudes and acceptance.

California, with its Compassionate Act of 1996, became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use by people with severe or chronic illnesses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two drugs with THC that are prescribed in pill form (Marinol and Syndros) to treat nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and loss of appetite in AIDS patients.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell weighed in on the medical marijuana debate in The New Yorker’s Jan. 14, 2019 issue. He cites the National Academy of Medicine’s convening of a panel of sixteen leading medical experts to analyze the scientific literature on cannabis. The January 2017 report is 486 pages in length and contains no surprises, only that a drug “North Americans have become enthusiastic about remains a mystery.” Many studies on marijuana were done in the 1980s and 1990s when cannabis was not nearly as potent as it is in 2019. The amount of THC has increased dramatically since those studies; in the mid-1990s the average THC content of confiscated marijuana was 4 percent. By 2014 the THC content increased to, on average, 12 percent. Due to developments in plant breeding and growing techniques the THC concentration has gone from a sip of 3.2 percent beer to a shot of high quality tequila. What Gladwell and others point out is that there is no definitive evidence, on either side of the debate, as to the short-term or long-term effects of marijuana use. Medical professionals understand that different substances react differently to different people; young or old, healthy or sick, sane or unstable.

The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, at the close of 2018, called on the federal government to rethink marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I substance. Adams did not condone legalization for recreational use, but he did say that medically, marijuana should be studied like any other pain relief drug and that both health and criminal justice policies need to be re-examined. He pointed out that the cannabis plant is made up of hundreds of chemical entities, thus a need for continued study. Cannabinoid oil and other derivatives of the plant have been used for treatment of everything from anxiety to epilepsy and that, coupled with the ongoing opioid crisis, warrants further research in regards to the medicinal properties of cannabis.

There is also a financial impact at the national and state level: A congressional report released in December entitled, “The National Cannabis Economy,” highlighted the economic benefits of legalized cannabis at the state and national levels. The report concludes that in 2018 more than $11 billion will be earned by the marijuana industry, and that sales will reach $23 billion by 2022 due to, “job creation, more tax revenue, and better patient care.” As of Dec. 10, 2018, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority collected an estimated $8.3 million in application fees.

The OMMA was established to oversee the medical marijuana program for the State of Oklahoma. It is responsible for licensing, regulating, and administering the program as authorized by state law. Operating under the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the primary goal is to ensure safe and responsible practices for the people of Oklahoma. The website is the official site for application submission and information for patients, caregivers, dispensaries, growers, processors, and physicians. It is important to note that marijuana is still listed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in federal law, so it cannot be prescribed. The Ninth Circuit Court ruling ensures protection for doctors who issue recommendations to patients who may benefit from cannabis-based treatments, but federal law precludes doctors from “aiding and abetting” patients obtaining marijuana. Doctors fill out a form indicating they discussed the risks and feel the benefits are worth the treatment.

Additionally, medical marijuana must be bought from a licensed dispensary; it cannot be used in the workplace and employees cannot be impaired on the job; you cannot transport across state lines or smoke in public or in front of minors. Also, a patient remains within legal guidelines if they possess no more than three ounces on their person and eight ounces in their residence, one ounce of concentrated marijuana, and 72 ounces of edible marijuana; if caught exceeding those limitations, the patient could lose their license and face criminal charges including intent to distribute or trafficking.

As of the first week of January, 35,802 patients, 252 caregiver, and 2,831 business applications had been received, totaling 38,885. Dispensaries began selling THC-rich products in November and patients were also able to harvest their first legal home-cultivated cannabis.

No doubt, there will be continued discussion regarding the positives and negatives of medical marijuana in and around the Stillwater community. Also, no doubt, the debate will involve those who have actively listened and tried to understand the medicinal impact such change can bring and those who continue to view cannabis from a stereotypical 1930s perspective. The goal of any medicine is to help heal and to possibly alleviate pain. That pain can be physical as well as mental and it is well known that what works for one patient might not necessarily work for another. At the same time, one person under the influence of marijuana does not react the same as another. What are the health risks? Is it on par with smoking cigarettes? E-cigarettes? How does the “high” differ from alcohol? Should soldiers returning from combat duty be allowed something to help with PTSD? If a cancer patient needs something following chemotherapy, and marijuana helps, should they not have that choice? And, like any medication or drug, getting behind the wheel means impaired driving. That we know for sure.

These and other questions will continue well past 2019.

Editor’s Note: As of January 10, 2019 there were 19 licensed Payne County Growers, 11 with Stillwater addresses; 4 Payne County Processors, 2 with Stillwater addresses; and 16 Payne County Dispensaries, 12 with Stillwater addresses.