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Oklahoma House passes medical marijuana 'Unity Bill'

by Faith Fidura February 28, 2019

Despite ongoing concerns with the legal status of federal drug laws, the Oklahoma House on Thursday nearly unanimously passed a bill providing a lengthy regulatory framework for the state's medical marijuana program. 

House Bill 2612 from House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, known as the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana and Patient Protection Act, cleared the House with a vote of 93-5. It is now eligible for discussion in the Oklahoma Senate, where Ada Sen. Greg McCortney - a co-chairman with Echols of the bipartisan, bicameral medical marijuana working group that worked on the bill - is the sponsor. shutterstock_1303985332

A summary of the measure indicates it would cost nearly $10 million to implement in its first year if signed into law. Echols sponsored HB 2612 Feb. 21 in the House Rules Committee, where it advanced for consideration by the full House by a vote of 6-0.

"Initially, I was a no vote. I have seen damaging effects of overuse of marijuana and felt it was detrimental to allow citizens to have another way to hurt themselves," said fellow working group Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, of State Question 788 on the House floor Thursday morning. "But this is not recreational. This is medicinal. My concern is getting patients the medicine that they need."

He and Echols, R-Oklahoma City, maintained the initiative - commonly called the Unity Bill or, in recent weeks, the "Skinnity Bill" - is not the final step in setting up regulations for the medical marijuana industry. In response to a question from House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, Fetgatter said "I have spent hours upon hours" with pro-cannabis activists to review the bill and come up with an agreeable structure. 

The working group held 13 meetings on the matter last summer and fall, hearing from activists, law enforcement, banking and tax officials, business leaders and medical industry professionals. Among those professionals were several people who either publicly opposed or financially supported the anti-SQ 788 campaign.

Opposition to the effort came largely from Rep. Shane Stone, D-Oklahoma City, who said during his debate remarks that he believed the effort "fell short" of upholding the will of voters who supported SQ 788 in June. Stone, one of the few "no" votes, said he was concerned the bill could give landlords the ability to discriminate against tenants who have medical marijuana licenses and wish to consume cannabis at their residences.

"There's nothing in this bill that respects the rights of patients specifically as it pertains to medical marijuana. Is that correct?" he asked. The bill would require tenants to have written permission from landlords. Fetgatter later said on the issue, "I think the landlord owns the property and that's the property right issue for me."

Stone also asked why, given conflicts with federal drug and firearms laws, the bill has specific language enabling licensed patients to legally carry guns. Echols said last year that he would support legislation upholding the gun rights of patients, and Fetgatter said it was one of the largest concerns he heard in the bill creation process.

But Rep. Chelsey Branham, D-Oklahoma City, pointed out the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently issued guidance notifying the public marijuana users, even if for a medical reason, cannot legally own guns under federal laws. Thirty-three states, including Oklahoma, have some form of marijuana legalization. 

"What we are doing in this bill is giving state law enforcement cover. They don't have to enforce that federal law, and in fact voting no on this bill would not be giving them that cover," Echols said. "Considering gun confiscations have not happened in recreational states, it's unlikely the first gun confiscation would occur in the state of Oklahoma in a medical program." 

However, Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, said federal law enforcement still has the ability to prosecute otherwise law-abiding Oklahomans for such offenses regardless of state laws. In a testy exchange that ensued, Fetgatter told Meredith he can "run a piece of legislation" seeking to bar patients from gun ownership if he chooses and later said he was "aware of the differences between state and federal government and what the 10th Amendment is."

"I don't know why we gotta go to that," said Meredith, who ultimately voted yes on the bill. "I'm asking a serious question. I'm not against this bill and I'm not against guns. But I think it's important that the people of Oklahoma realize and understand the importance of this." 

Shortly after, Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, asked whether school districts are more concerned with potential consequences of the permitless carry bill Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law Wednesday than firearms possession by medical marijuana users. Fetgatter, in response, said those concerns might be more prevalent among constituents in Bennett's urban, Democratic district than in his own rural, largely Republican one.

"Can't you agree, Representative, that the presence of a firearm may exacerbate situations and the presence of medical marijuana may mellow them?" Bennett asked, to which Fetgatter joked, "We could be a little chilled out." Echols said states such as Arkansas and Arizona, which have medical marijuana laws in effect, also have laws similar to Oklahoma's new permitless carry legislation.


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