Stitt pushes for state medical marijuana reform

OKALAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Gov. Kevin Stitt will push for reforms to Oklahoma’s medical marijuana laws. Changes, he said, would crack down on the large number of illegal growing operations that are often tied to organized crime.

Stitt expressed his desire for change in his 2022 State of the State address at the opening of the legislative session.

FOX23 reached out to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (OBN), the agency in charge of marijuana growing oversight, to see just how bad the problem was.

The agency said between April 2021 and the time of the speech, it had disbanded 85 farms that were operating without a license. The smallest grow involved five thousand plants and the largest was 40 thousand plants. Those plants were later destroyed once enough evidence was gathered for criminal investigation and prosecution.

OBN spokesman Mark Woodward told FOX23 so far the agency has linked illegal marijuana growing operations to organized crime and gangs in Mexico, China and Bulgaria. Some illegal operations were Americans themselves growing marijuana in Oklahoma and then selling them in higher use states like Colorado.

Woodward said illegal grows happen in all 77 counties, and in many cases, the average person will suspect something is illegal, but some of the operations will look legitimate with greenhouses and other facilities needed for processing.

“Next door in Arkansas, they have eight growers. We have 8,300. You know as well as I do that not all of that product is being sold legally,” Stitt said.

Stitt is proposing to raise the price of a grower’s license to match that of California’s structure. Right now, Stitt said, Oklahoma growers are paying a flat $2,500 fee to start any operation of any size.

California’s prices for licensing vary on the size of the growing operation, and at what stage of cultivation or sale someone is looking to get involved in. For small operations, California’s Department of Cannabis Control will charge as little as $1,300 for someone looking to grow a small amount of legal weed, likely for themselves and their immediate family. Larger operations don’t go any higher than $76 thousand, contrary to what Stitt’s speech implied that California is allegedly charging $181 thousand.

FOX23 found that only one license type that costs $181 thousand in California, and that is for those doing large scale distribution. That single class of license is looking to do $50 million and one dollar to $70 million in annual business. Many fees and licenses range in the tens of thousands of dollars for basic operations similar to what is being charged in Oklahoma.

Stitt said currently law enforcement has been directed by him to further crack down on illegal grows.

“I’ve directed our law enforcement to crack down hard on the black market,” he said. “Agents have been in the field making arrests. Let me be clear. Drug cartels, organized crime and foreign bad actors have no place in Oklahoma. We will find them, and we will bring them to justice.”

Oklahoma Democrats said while they do not encourage anyone to break the law, they are concerned that Stitt’s new efforts to raise licensing fees could shut out average people looking to get into and start their own legitimate marijuana businesses.

“First he says we don’t want to be like California, and then he turns around and points to California as an example of where we should be,” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin said in response to the speech.

It should be noted, the 8,600 growers Stitt mentioned in his speech are legal growers who paid their fees to be licensed and many follow the law in their operations.

Opponents of reform, especially of raising the fees as Stitt is proposing, point out criminals don’t pay for the right to grow now, and they certainly won’t pay even more in the future.

Virgin said by raising fees, Stitt is only proposing that the rich, already established, or those with multiple investors should be allowed to operate a cannabis business in Oklahoma.

There are a few Republicans in the state legislature who consider themselves to be pro-pot that have been working on protecting the will of Oklahoma voters since voters passed it nearly four years ago. It’s not so much that they use, sell, or even abuse the product, but they feel the people have spoken on the issue and the government does not have the right to tell them that their desires for legal medical cannabis were wrong.

So far FOX23 did not hear from any middle ground Republicans who will likely shepherd some of Stitt’s efforts while toning down others.