As medical marijuana booms in Oklahoma, could recreational program be next?

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The coronavirus pandemic made 2020 one of the worst years financially for most industries in the United States. Restaurants, bars, airlines, oil and gas all saw hard times last year.

But one industry in Oklahoma saw a boon in 2020: Medical marijuana.

"Really taking a look at the tax numbers over that time, climbed really steadily, and reached a peak of $5.5 million in that excise tax collection in June of 2020," says Dr. Kelly Williams, the interim Director at the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. "Just a year before, in June of 2019, we only had $2.1 million in excise tax collection."

In all, Dr. Williams says the OMMA brought in $50 million through the 7% excise tax last year, a record and more than doubling 2019's total. And those sales also accrued more than $71 million in sales tax revenue for individual cities and communities.

"The sales tax revenue that has come into these smaller communities especially, or the larger cities even, has helped sustain those budget issues that they would have faced otherwise," said State Representative Scott Fetgatter (R-Okmulgee).

The agency also saw its patient count surpass 370,000, nearly 10% of Oklahoma's entire population, and passed 10,000 commercial licensees.

"Given the number of patients we have, it's really unlikely that anyone doesn't know someone who has their patient card," says Dr. Williams. "And the number of referrals that have been written certainly indicate that physicians are seeing this as a viable referral that they can write."

By law, the money collected from the excise tax goes to fund the OMMA. Anything left over goes to education funding and money for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. In 2020, OMMA officials say the money they collected from the tax means $12 million more in funds for education and another $4 million to rehabilitation programs.

These kinds of numbers will certainly catch people's attention, especially when the state is facing upwards of a $400 million budget deficit and has to find a way to pay for Medicaid expansion. Medical marijuana can't help there, its tax collections are locked in. But one state lawmaker thinks expanding that market could help.

"Legislators over 100 years ago when alcohol was illegal, they were having the same conversations about alcohol that we're having about marijuana today," said Rep. Fetgatter.

Representative Fetgatter's attitude toward marijuana has undergone a pretty dramatic shift over the last two-plus years. He admits he was "very anti-marijuana," and opposed to State Question 788, which proposed a medical program in the state.

But after it passed, Fetgatter says he committed himself to treating the industry like any other, and started to do his research.

"I came to the realization that there's no reason I should stand between a doctor and a patient, and tell that doctor or patient they can or cannot use cannabis as a form of treatment," says Rep. Fetgatter.

Representative Fetgatter has now become one of the most vocal champions of the state's medical program, and was instrumental in the industry being declared "essential" during the pandemic. Fetgatter says he called Governor Stitt, and maintained the business was needed by people who use marijuana as medicine.

But as the state faces some big bills to pay, Rep. Fetgatter thinks marijuana could help, namely with a recreational program.

"I filed a bill this year that would be an adult use program," says Rep. Fetgatter. "If my bill is successful, what we'll do is put a state question on the ballot and let the citizens in Oklahoma decide if this is the program they want us to proceed with.

Rep. Fetgatter's plan, if successful, would institute a recreational program for people 21-years-old and older. It would apply a 15% excise tax to all recreational sales, and that money would go back into the general revenue fund.

It's not the first time a recreational plan has been proposed in Oklahoma. But Representative Fetgatter thinks there is support for his plan.

"Republicans and Democrats alike, Independents, for the most part, the feedback I get is that they support the program," says Fetgatter. "They want changes and they want certain things done a different way at certain times, but I think there's a lot of support for an adult-use program."

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