Oklahoma voters reject question to legalize recreational marijuana
March 7, 2023 video by Carmen Forman, Tulsa World
Editor's note: This story has been updated with complete statewide results.
OKLAHOMA CITY — A state question to legalize recreational marijuana in Oklahoma overwhelmingly failed Tuesday in a low-turnout special election.
With all 566,004 votes cast in absentee, early in-person and election day voting counted, State Question 820 was defeated by a count of 349,121 against (61%) to 216,883 (38%) in favor, a difference of 23 percentage points, according to the State Election Board. The statewide voter turnout was 25.35%.
While the vote was close in major metropolitan areas like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Cleveland counties, rural voters forcefully rejected SQ 820, which would have legalized recreational cannabis for people age 21 and older.
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Members of the Yes on 820 campaign said this is just the start of efforts to implement large-scale criminal justice reforms to stop penalizing people for having small amounts of marijuana.
SQ 820 would have allowed some nonviolent offenders to petition to have their marijuana convictions reversed and expunged from their records.
“This wasn’t about legalizing marijuana,” said Yes on 820 senior adviser Ryan Kiesel. “This was about keeping Oklahomans out of the criminal justice system.”
Tuesday’s election results may be a testament to the pervasiveness of cannabis already available across the state. After voters legalized medical marijuana in 2018, anyone who has a doctor’s recommendation and $100 for a medical cannabis card can get marijuana.
Roughly 10% of Oklahomans have a medical marijuana card, and Oklahoma has more dispensaries than any other state.
Although the campaign in support of SQ 820 was well-funded with about $5 million largely from national civil rights and criminal justice reform groups, opposition mounted in recent months.
Some law enforcement officers, educators, faith leaders and mental health professionals united to oppose recreational cannabis. The opposition campaign was led by former Republican Gov. Frank Keating. Their central message was that SQ 820 would be detrimental to children and youths despite age restrictions on recreational cannabis sales.
U.S. Sen. James Lankford, Gov. Kevin Stitt, Attorney General Gentner Drummond and many Republican members of the Oklahoma Legislature opposed the question.
Stitt said the rejection of SQ 820 was the best outcome for keeping kids safe.
“Oklahoma is a law and order state,” he said in a statement. “I remain committed to protecting Oklahomans and my administration will continue to hold bad actors accountable and crack down on illegal marijuana operations in our state.”
Pat McFerron of the No on 820 campaign said he was pleased with the election results.
“We think this sends a clear message that Oklahomans oppose the unfettered access to marijuana we have experienced under our so-called medical program,” McFerron said in a statement. “Voters clearly want to protect our children, crack down on organized crime, and improve the mental health of those in our state.”
Arkansas voters in November also rejected a ballot measure to legalize recreational cannabis there.
Oklahoma City resident Tevin McDaniel, 25, told himself on Election Day not to get his hopes up. The former dispensary owner and medical marijuana patient, who is Black, voted for SQ 820.
He expressed disappointment after the election was called, noting that Black people are disproportionately convicted for having small amounts of marijuana.
“We’re where progressive ideas go to die,” he said of Oklahoma.