Like Oklahoma, the state of Pennsylvania began medical marijuana sales in 2018. In recent months, the Pennsylvania Legislature filed bills to legalize recreational use with projected tax revenues of $500 million in the program’s first year. With Pennsylvania’s proximity to densely populated areas of Ohio, New York and New Jersey, $500 million in tax revenue is certainly realistic. Approximately 40 million people live within a 90-minute drive of the state and another 13 million live within its borders. Hence, there is a market roughly on par with that of California’s, which brought in $650 million in taxes last year from marijuana sales.
Comparatively, Oklahoma has a population of nearly 4 million people, and within a 90-minute drive, there are roughly another 15 million (north Texas, western Arkansas, southern Missouri and Kansas). Hence, we can estimate $200 million in recreational marijuana tax revenue based on this model.
While $200 million would cover only a portion of our $1.3 billion state budget shortfall, it is hard to dismiss the relevance of such additional revenue. That $200 million, added to the state budget, would save thousands of jobs, prevent vital services from being cut and help mitigate the depletion of our rainy day fund. Likewise, visitors from other states will spend their money in Oklahoma, paying for gas, food and lodging, visiting our lakes, shopping at our malls, going to the theater or ballet, as they weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma City or smaller cities and towns closer to the borders. Such spending could generate a further $100 million in taxes. That brings us to a modest estimate of $300 million, almost one quarter of our current budget shortfall. Added to that, such an increase in the Oklahoma marijuana market would lead to additional businesses and jobs.
Whether or not one is in support of marijuana legalization, most people would still agree that it is only a matter of time until federal prohibition ends. We therefore have a time-sensitive opportunity to not only help balance our budget amidst an unprecedented crisis, but also to position Oklahoma as an industry leader in the region.
With instability in oil prices, profound revenue losses because of the shelter-in-place order and an anticipated recession for the coming years, our Legislature should not dismiss this opportunity: additional revenue is absolutely needed; we already have a program that the powers of this state regard as recreational; and we have a well-developed infrastructure of marijuana growers, processors and dispensaries. Everything is lined up for this transition. It is the opportunity we need and an opportunity that should not be squandered.
Further, I do not see our current medical program getting fixed unless the institutions of power come to respect what we have as medical. So, to address our current budget crisis, our Legislature can follow the path of 11 (and soon to be 12 other states): i.e., implement a dual system on one side of which anyone of legal age can buy marijuana, and on the other, we have a bona fide medical program which is respected as such by our physicians, employers and lawmakers.
Lawrence Pasternack, Ph.D., is a patient advocate for the Oklahoma Cannabis Liberty Alliance.
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