Game change 

Sen. Constance Johnson
Credit: Mark Hancock

Senate Bill. 902 would direct the state Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision to “develop and adopt rules permitting the prescription of medical cannabis by physicians” to patients with debilitating medical conditions. The legislation would also enable that board to set fees for the production, distribution and consumption of medical marijuana.

Another bill by Johnson would reduce the maximum penalty for first-offense marijuana possession of up to 1.5 ounces from a year in jail and $1,000 fine to 10 days in jail and a $200 fine.

Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, approved an interim study for medical marijuana last summer, but Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, rejected a hearing on the matter in November.

A new approach
Johnson said her political strategy has changed. While previous bills focused on “compassionate use” of medical pot, she said language submitted for this year’s session, which begins Monday, was modeled after Connecticut’s Palliative Use of Marijuana Act.

“When we said ‘compassionate,’ people kept trying to say that it was about recreational use, and it’s really not,” Johnson said. “It’s about care for people who are suffering.”

The Connecticut law went into effect in October. According to that state’s Department of Consumer Protection, qualifying patients need to be diagnosed as having one of the following: cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity, epilepsy, cachexia, wasting syndrome, Crohn’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patients must be a state resident and at least 18 years of age.

Mike McGhee

Regulations regarding state-licensed distribution of medical cannabis are pending. Currently, however, patients are lawfully allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

Law enforcement issues
Legalizing medical marijuana would place “a greater burden” on Oklahoma law enforcement, said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.

“What’s happened in California, Colorado, Montana and some of the other medical marijuana states is the amount of fraud that is involved with ‘grow’ clubs and the dispensaries,” he said. “It’s not sick people. It’s people who are pot smokers who are basically getting it.”

Drug activity has increased in Oklahoma, he said. The OBN’s nationally recognized marijuana eradication program seized about 30,000 plants last year from several large growing operations, many linked to Mexican drug cartels.

“They’ll drop people off in these national wildlife or remote areas and pay them to grow high-quality commercial marijuana for sale primarily on the East Coast. We’ve seen that here in Oklahoma and in North Texas,” Woodward said.

He added that marijuana is also being trafficked along state highways, much of it coming from Colorado, where voters recently approved its legalization.

Keeping the faith
Oklahoma medical marijuana advocates say the cultural tide is shifting.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., now allow medical marijuana, with two states having decriminalized small amounts of the drug.

“I’m going to keep on fighting until it’s free like tomatoes,” said Norma Sapp, state director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “The civil liberties that have been taken away in the name of the drug war are egregious.”

People who support medical marijuana legislation are encouraged to contact their legislators, Sapp said, because organizing an initiative petition would cost at least $1 million.

There is a vast amount of evidence demonstrating the medical benefits of marijuana, said Mason Tvert, director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization.

“If a doctor believes their patient can alleviate his or her pain and suffering by using marijuana, that patient should be able to do so without the fear of arrest,” he said.

The issue should be left up to doctors, not law enforcement, said Mike McGhee, a local medical marijuana advocate.

“I don’t go to a cop and ask him what to do for a cold. I go to a doctor,” he said. “We need to put this in the hands of our doctors and regulate it.”

Although McGhee said he has not tried Marinol, the synthetic pill form of marijuana, he said it’s his understanding that it doesn’t alleviate pain. A former police officer, McGhee suffers from degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis and severe arthritis.

“What people tell me is, it just doesn’t help,” he said.

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