Some states balk at voter-ap­proved med­i­cal mar­i­juana


OK­LA­HOMA CITY — Pot ad­vo­cates cel­e­brated the cul­mi­na­tion of a years-long ef­fort to ease re­stric­tions on the use of cannabis last month when nearly 60 per­cent of Ok­la­homa vot­ers ap­proved med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

Ok­la­homa’s pro­po­nents had even in­cluded a twom­onth dead­line for the im­ple­men­ta­tion in their mea­sure so as to avoid the years of de­lays they had seen else­where.

But that has not stopped state health of­fi­cials and the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor from mak­ing dras­tic changes. Within weeks of the elec­tion, they signed off on tough new re­stric­tions, in­clud­ing a ban on the sale of smok­able pot. The change was sup­ported by groups rep­re­sent­ing doc­tors, hos­pi­tals and phar­ma­cists who op­posed med­i­cal mar­i­juana, but in­fu­ri­ated sup­port­ers of the state ques­tion and has al­ready led to law­suits.

“It’s like they snatched de­feat out of the jaws of vic­tory,” said Chip Paul, who helped write Ok­la­homa’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana state ques­tion and push for its ap­proval. “You try to do some­thing the proper way. You fol­low the rules. And then you win and you get screwed.”

Even in con­ser­va­tive states such as Ok­la­homa, which be­came the 30th in the U.S. to le­gal­ize med­i­cal mar­i­juana , at­ti­tudes are shift­ing in fa­vor of eas­ing re­stric­tions on pot. But there re­mains re­sis­tance from pol­i­cy­mak­ers, es­pe­cially in Repub­li­can-con­trolled ar­eas, where the roll­out of med­i­cal mar­i­juana has fre­quently been re­stricted by law­mak­ers or bogged down in court bat­tles.

Af­ter more than 70 per­cent of Florida vot­ers ap­proved med­i­cal mar­i­juana in 2016, the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture there im­posed a sim­i­lar ban on smok­able pot. A judge last month ruled that such a ban was un­con­sti­tu­tional.

In Arkansas, 53 per­cent of vot­ers ap­proved med­i­cal mar­i­juana in 2016, but a le­gal chal­lenge has de­layed the pro­gram. Michi­gan vot­ers ap­proved med­i­cal mar­i­juana in 2008, only to be fol­lowed by years of court fights.

In Texas, the GOP-led Leg­is­la­ture ap­proved a re­stric­tive med­i­cal mari- juana law in 2015, then pro­ceeded to in­sti­tute strict reg­u­la­tions. It al­lowed only three dis­pen­saries in a state of 27 mil­lion peo­ple and im­posed the high­est li­cens­ing fees in the coun­try.

Mar­i­juana ad­vo­cates say the re­stric­tions on how med­i­cal mar­i­juana can be used or the ad­di­tional bur­dens placed on doc­tors may wind up un­der­min­ing the ini­tia­tives and laws.

“The ex­tent of lim­i­ta­tions re­ally serves to de­prive peo­ple of the key goal, which is let­ting peo­ple use med­i­cal mar­i­juana with­out be­ing pun­ished,” said Karen O’Keefe, di­rec­tor of state poli­cies for the Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Project.

Ef­forts to heav­ily re­strict med­i­cal mar­i­juana in Arkansas — in­clud­ing an out­right ban on smok­ing it and an at­tempt to de­lay the pro­gram’s launch un­til mar­i­juana was le­gal­ized na­tion­wide — failed in the ma­jor­ity-Repub­li­can Leg­is­la­ture last year. But the pro­gram’s launch has stalled and med­i­cal mar­i­juana likely won’t be avail­able un­til some­time next year.

The prob­lem stems from le­gal chal­lenges over the state’s li­cens­ing process for med­i­cal mar­i­juana. The state Supreme Court last month cleared the way for the pro­gram to be­gin, re­vers­ing a lower judge’s rul­ing that the li­cens­ing process was flawed and vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment le­gal­iz­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana. An un­suc­cess­ful ap­pli­cant had sued over the process.

More than 5,500 pa­tients have been ap­proved to use med­i­cal mar­i­juana in the state, and Arkansas will is­sue them registry cards about a month be­fore the drug is ex­pected to be legally avail­able.

“If I was a pa­tient, I would be coming unglued. I think they are coming unglued,” said at­tor­ney David Couch, who au­thored Arkansas’ med­i­cal mar­i­juana amend­ment.

Ok­la­homa’s State Ques­tion 788, the re­sult of an ac­tivist-led sig­na­ture drive, passed over­whelm­ingly de­spite fierce op­po­si­tion and more than $1 mil­lion in spend­ing by cham­bers of com­merce, clergy, doc­tors, hos­pi­tals, law en­force­ment and phar­ma­cists.

Term-lim­ited Repub­li­can Gov. Mary Fallin, who typ­i­cally doesn’t com­ment on state ques­tions, said days be­fore the mea­sure passed that it was too loosely writ­ten and would es­sen­tially al­low recre­ational use.

Af­ter it passed, the same med­i­cal groups that op­posed it rec­om­mended the ban on “smok­ables” and the phar­ma­cist re­quire­ment. On Fri­day, sep­a­rate law­suits were filed in two Ok­la­homa coun­ties ac­cus­ing state health of­fi­cials of im­prop­erly im­pos­ing the strict rules.

“Smok­ing of any kind is un­healthy,” said Ok­la­homa State Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Jean Hausheer, an oph­thal­mol­o­gist from Law­ton. “This is­sue is not an op­tion and re­ally is more of an ab­so­lute de­mand.”

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