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Law enforcement in Oklahoma's marijuana industry could change drastically in 2022. Here's why.
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Law enforcement in Oklahoma's marijuana industry could change drastically in 2022. Here's why.

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Oklahoma pot rally capitol

A man takes a photo of a medical marijuana flag in front of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City during a July 30 rally in which supporters sought better transparency by the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. 

OKLAHOMA CITY — One of the biggest challenges Oklahoma faced with its nascent medical marijuana industry in 2021 was enforcement.

It was a both a law problem and a human problem. The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority had limits on how it could enforce the rules. And even if it had that power, the agency didn't have enough inspectors to visit every cannabis business.

The OMMA is closer to realizing its staffing goals in 2022, however.

The Legislature gave the agency stronger authority to shut down noncompliant businesses and beefed up funding to increase staffing levels. OMMA Director Adria Berry said staffing has grown by about 75% since May and that it now has 171 employees.

Of that number, 67 work in the division that ensures that businesses comply with the law.

"We do still have hiring to do," Berry said. "We're looking at at least 30 more compliance inspectors, and then we'll reevaluate once we get to that number and see how many more we need."

Whittling down businesses as numbers grew out of control

No one truly knows how many cannabis businesses are in Oklahoma. Until last year, the state had no way to verify whether a license holder was actually doing business.

This fact is a sobering example of how quickly Oklahoma's cannabis industry has grown, and it shines a light on the troubles OMMA has in regulating the industry.

People who follow the cannabis industry might notice fewer business licensees in 2022. The first large chunk of those that are gone will be businesses that did not comply with a new law aimed at negating the effect of foreign money.

Marijuana businesses must sign an official document regarding the existence of any foreign financial interest.

Berry said the state has filed 650 administrative cases to revoke licenses for businesses that didn't sign the document. Hundreds more will be filed in the coming months.

Many license holders voluntarily surrendered their licenses when the case against them was filed.

"I think some of them either were operating businesses and no longer are or they just got a license to hold onto," Berry said.

Licensure spiked last year when lawmakers discussed capping the number of licenses that can be issued, Berry said. A significant number of those are probably dormant, with the license holder never actually launching a business.

A hot topic

There's currently no legal ability for the OMMA to perform business inspections before issuing a license, something Berry said she's asking lawmakers to change.

"If you think of a restaurant or a hair salon or anywhere like that that serves people, or even agriculture farms, there is always prelicensure inspection," she said.

It will take legislative action at the state Capitol to achieve, and the idea already is circulating among lawmakers.

One of the most vocal legislators on cannabis issues is state Rep. Scott Fetgatter, who said he still hears concerns from his constituents about the proliferation of grow operations and how often criminal organizations profit.

State investigators have received tips about illegal marijuana operations from every county, and in June alone, several high-profile raids uncovered thousands of plants worth tens of millions of dollars, as well as dozens of workers who were paid little or no money while laboring in poor conditions.

With more inspections and the implementation of a seed-to-sale tracking system that currently is tied up in district court, those concerns could be alleviated.

It's been a long time coming: Oklahoma picked the tracking system, operated by a company called Metrc, 16 months ago. Legal challenges have claimed that the state improperly selected Metrc and is thwarting competition.

Changes within OMMA

Another big change for OMMA in 2022 could be that it gets to be its own agency. It's currently housed in the state Health Department, but lawmakers have discussed the agency's ability to stand alone.

"OMMA is big enough. They fund themselves. They're funded through licensing fees and excise tax," Fetgatter said. "They need to be a stand-alone agency that can make the decisions it needs to make as it pertains to public safety and health without having to go through a bunch of bureaucratic red tape."

When asked about Capitol discussions to create a stand-alone agency, Berry simply replied that she's glad the OMMA has a seat at the table.

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