(This story was updated at 10:10 p.m. ET Tuesday with comment from the Yes on 820 campaign. It also was updated to correct the number of annual arrests.)
In a decisive rebuke for marijuana legalization in the conservative American heartland, voters in Oklahoma on Tuesday soundly rejected an adult-use measure in a special election.
With just under 72% of precincts reporting on Tuesday, State Question 820 was losing by nearly 27 points, with 141,978 votes in favor to 242,234 against.
Polls had been closed for just over an hour when The New York Times and Associated Press called the race over.
Tuesday’s defeat in Oklahoma follows losses in November in Arkansas and the Dakotas, though adult-use cannabis sales have begun in Missouri, where a legalization measure passed in November.
Oklahoma voters appeared to turn out against the measure in both rural and urban areas – when they turned out at all.
According to early, unofficial results from the Oklahoma secretary of state, a total of 13,851 voters requested absentee ballots, compared with 71,000 in the November general election.
The measure also lost soundly among the 34,403 voters who cast early ballots starting last week – 21,849 of whom voted no.
Cannabis industry advocates fear that Tuesday’s defeat will spell the beginning of a statewide crackdown on Oklahoma’s heretofore freewheeling medical marijuana experiment.
And in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 2-1, Tuesday’s legalization loss is also a sign that broader reform, including federal marijuana legalization, might be a more difficult lift than anticipated.
“Today’s decision in Oklahoma is heartbreaking, especially considering how many challenges this bill faced before it got to the ballot and how much work advocates put in,” said Jeffrey M. Zucker, co-founder and president of Denver-based cannabis consultancy Green Lion Partners and vice chair of the board at the Marijuana Policy Project, a national legalization advocacy group.
“We have a long way to go to undo the damage of the war on drugs, especially in a state where more than 4,500 people are arrested annually for cannabis possession,” he added.
In a statement, Michelle Tilley, the Yes on 820 campaign spokesperson, vowed to try again.
“We didn’t get State Question 820 across the finish line tonight, but the fact remains that marijuana legalization is not a question of ‘if;’ it’s a question of ‘when,’” she said.
Pat McFerron, a veteran Republican political strategist who led the No on 820 campaign, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Where marijuana is legal in the United States
The politics of marijuana
Though neither campaign released polling ahead of Tuesday’s vote, McFerron, a veteran Republican political consultant who organized the opposition campaign, told MJBizDaily last week that an informal January poll he took of 500 likely voters showed the campaign running slightly behind, 46% in favor to 49% opposed.
Tuesday’s vote - believed to be the first time voters anywhere in the U.S. went to the polls with only adult-use cannabis legalization on the ballot - was the culmination of a drawn-out and contentious process.
Last summer, the pro-legalization campaign accused the state in a lawsuit of intentionally slow-walking the ballot referendum process in order to miss a key deadline.
After the state Supreme Court declined to intervene, Gov. Kevin Stitt kicked Question 820 to Tuesday’s special election.
Observers on the political spectrum said pushing legalization to a special vote rather than a November general election helped Stitt, who was seen as vulnerable despite easily cruising to reelection, and hurt legalization, which might have gotten more turnout in a general election.
Question 820 would have imposed a 15% excise tax on recreational marijuana sales, plus state and local sales taxes.
The state MMJ excise tax remains 7%.
Moratorium will halt growth
Considered the country’s most business-friendly and laissez-faire state, Oklahoma is home to nearly 12,000 licensed cannabis businesses, according to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, though there have been recent sign of a slowdown after a yearslong rush that followed the June 2018 approval of MMJ at the ballot.
The state has 7,078 licensed growers and 2,877 dispensaries as of Feb. 8, the most recent data available.
There won’t be any more for at least another 18 months after state officials imposed a two-year moratorium on new business licenses last August.
There are also 369,468 registered patients in the state - a slight decrease from the 382,069 who held MMJ recommendations a year ago but still more per capita than any other state.
Though the state MMJ industry claims to be struggling amid a price crash triggered by oversupply and a shrinking patient base, Oklahomans still purchased more than $786 million of cannabis last year, according to state figures.
The state raked in more than $120 million in tax revenue.
With medical marijuana so readily and widely available, some observers questioned whether voters would see legalization of adult-use cannabis as a priority.
And advocates say that rejecting the measure would lead to a wide crackdown on the state's MMJ industry.
Critics, particularly in rural areas, complained of quality-of-life issues including rising crime and violence, a bell that state law enforcement officials rang repeatedly in the run-up to the election.
State agencies opposed measure
On Feb. 24, less than two weeks before Tuesday’s vote, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (ONB) said an investigation linked “multiple” MMJ farms to organized crime factions involved in sex trafficking and prostitution.
The agency claimed to have shut down more than 800 cannabis farms linked to organized crime, OBN Director Donnie Anderson said in a news release.
The state drug-enforcement agency has long made known its opposition to medical marijuana.
In a November white paper, the ONB claimed legal MMJ poses “extreme challenges” that “unscrupulous actors and criminal enterprises have sought to exploit.”
Law enforcement agencies across the country say that Oklahoma is now a leading source for illicit-market cannabis sold across state lines.
Similar concerns prompted nearly all of the state’s political establishment to oppose the adult-use measure.
Prominent opponents included Stitt and Republican U.S. Senator James Lankford, who deployed familiar arguments as well as market logic.
In Oklahoma, we already have more marijuana operations than California, Oregon, and Washington combined. That means more crime, addiction, and harm to our neighborhoods.
Vote NO on Tuesday, March 7--we do not need more marijuana in our state.
— James Lankford (@jameslankford) March 6, 2023
The state Republican Party, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association all opposed the measure.
Xenophobia appears to have played a role in the election.
In echoes of national Republicans’ messaging tying foreigners to crime and violence, both Oklahoma law enforcement and political lobbies said that MMJ provided cover for unsavory outsiders to jeopardize Oklahoma residents.
“We must protect our rural way of life from out-of-state and foreign interests that do not have the best interests of our state at heart,” OC President Byron Yeoman said in a preelection statement.
Chris Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.