The march to recreational cannabis legalisation in the US does still have an air of eventual inevitability about it. But it is by no means a straight line upwards, as the recent ballot result in Oklahoma shows.

Voters have chosen to reject a proposal to legalise recreational cannabis in the state by a significant margin, with around 62% saying no.

State Question 820 would have allowed adults aged 21 and above to purchase and possess up to 1 oz of cannabis, and grow up to six mature plants and six seedlings for personal use. It would have allowed public consumption of cannabis wherever that of tobacco is legal, established a 15% excise tax, and made the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority responsible for regulating the programme and issuing cannabis business licences.

The result was a bit of a surprise. The Associated Press (AP), which does not do projections, did point out that medical cannabis had been legalised in the state a few years ago (2018). Some bookies had a “yes” vote as the odds-on favourite, suggesting it was more than 64% likely to be the result of the special ballot.

Nearby states, such as Missouri, with a similar political make-up, had voted to legalise recreational cannabis in November – further creating optimism among supporters despite opposition from major Oklahoma politicians such as Republican governor Kevin Stitt, Republican US senator James Lankford, and a majority conservative population.


Reasons for failure


But perhaps supporters should have been more aware of the possibility of losing. Recreational legalisation groups were divided on the approach, and attempts to unify the most ardent supporters before voting day appear to have failed.

The state’s strong medical cannabis programme was outed as a reason voters would support recreational legalisation. But in some ways the success of the medical programme may have contributed to the measure’s downfall.

Oklahoma has one of the most liberal medical cannabis programmes in the US. It has no cap on the number of medical cannabis businesses and does not require specific medical conditions as a prerequisite for getting a patient permit.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join in to hear about news, events, and podcasts in the sector

    See more

    In fact, of those consumers who would want legal access to cannabis products, it was really those in neighbouring states such as Texas that would have been most interested in a recreational model, as one of the few medical cannabis programme requirements was proof of residency in Oklahoma.

    Of course those living across the border in Texas could not vote for the recent measure and for those in Oklahoma itself, the liberal medical programme in all probability took the edge off the interest needed to get supporters to the poll in sufficient numbers.


    Low turnout should have been no surprise


    Similarly, much was made of this being a “special” election, campaigners having failed to get a recreational approval measure on the November midterm ballot. But voter numbers tradtionally dip during non-presidential election years and a separate ballot out of even the regular voting schedule for electing legislators had a significant chance of seeing a tiny turnout.

    Which is exactly what happened. Oklahoma struggles to get people to the polls even in the best of times, with one of the lowest voter-eligible voting rates in the nation. Only around 600,000 people voted on the special legalisation ballot, compared to a still low 1.15m voting in last November’s midterms.

    In all, the measure was set up to give opponents an easier path to victory. Those concerned with the impact of recreational legalisation were more likely to turn up, given the impact a very liberal medical programme would have on many of those interested in cannabis access, while detractors only had to point to issues such as poor regulation and allegations of corruption in the running of medical cannabis purveyors.

    But as one advocate said, the defeat is really more of a delay. Expect a redesigned proposal to once again be floated in the near future and another vote on it eventually to be scheduled – this time perhaps connected to other elections, to draw more voters out.

    Freddie Dawson CannIntelligence staff

    Photo: Josh Cole

    Author default picture

    Freddie Dawson