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What to watch for now that Oklahomans have rejected recreational marijuana

Marijuana growing at Iris Farms outside Stillwater, Okla.
Seth Bodine / KOSU
Marijuana growing at Iris Farms outside Stillwater, Okla.

Oklahomans voted down legalizing recreational marijuana more than a week ago, with nearly 62% of voters rejecting State Question 820.

Oklahoma lawmakers and leadership have come out and said the vote is a clear sign that Oklahomans want a more dialed back medical industry. Last week, Gov. Kevin Stitt told reporters, “We don't believe that anybody with a hangnail should be able to get a medical card.”

But the results don’t necessarily tell the entire story. Voter turnout was a paltry 25%.

KOSU’s Kateleigh Mills spoke with University of Oklahoma political scientist Allyson Shortle, who studies group identity in the context of American political behavior, to learn more. Here is their interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mills: What kind of things have you been hearing or things that you kind of thought led to this turnout?

OU Political Science Professor Allyson Shortle
University of Oklahoma
OU Political Science Professor Allyson Shortle

Shortle: I think a lot of people were affected by exactly how many cannabis stores they've seen - just feeling like it's a visible part of their everyday life that they're not necessarily pleased to be around. So even if they use medical marijuana themselves, even if they approve of it, there is a sense that perhaps this issue has reached people's everyday lives in a way where they thought it would be siphoned off a little bit, and it wouldn't necessarily be something that they'd see driving down the road or even walking down the street next to their home. So, I do have a sense that people are a little tired. And I think, you know, the governor came out and said as much in his own conversations with voters. I don't think that's off at all. I agree that I've heard a lot from people around Oklahoma not necessarily wanting to expand something that they think has saturated not just politics, but, again, their everyday life.

Mills: Do you think recreational marijuana being on the March ballot as a standalone issue contributed to it not passing?

Shortle: I'm not sure if it's the March election. I do think that absolutely tends to mean that there's less turnout, and it's harder to get people mobilized to come out in any given special election. We have difficulty in Oklahoma getting people out for a presidential in midterm elections. It's even harder when we're talking about special elections. So you’d think that perhaps it's the timing, and that's totally possible. But I'd say when you're looking at the amount of money that was put into the ‘yes’ side of this proposition, it was just so much larger than the opposition. So they had all the money in the world to basically mobilize people and get them out to the polls. And I even talked to some, you know, cannabis store owners who were apparently mobilizing their clientele to try and go out to the polls. There are tons of groups that had cropped up trying to get people mobilized on this issue to support the passage. And yet, the opposition won out. We don’t often see that the side that has more money loses. That's not exactly common. So to me, it's less about the timing because we'd expect more turnout given how much efforts were played on the part of these organizations trying to get their supporters out to the polls. The fact of the matter is, they just did not show up to the polls.

Mills: In Colorado, they had medical marijuana for over a decade before they passed recreational. So… maybe it was just a ‘too early’ kind of thing here?

Shortle: Everything changed so quickly that it's sort of stunning to see after passing medical marijuana - and also remember, this was not that long after we reversed blue laws. So we went sort of a decade ago, being not even able to purchase cold beer. Unless it was less, you know, 3.2 or less, and having really restrictive laws over access to alcohol to all of a sudden looking a decade later full access to alcohol, and now all of a sudden very easy access to what used to be an illicit drug. And beyond that, having a cannabis store pretty much on every corner, in the cities at least, and also rural areas. Honestly, in Oklahoma, if you take a drive through our state, you see many cannabis shops along the roads pretty much everywhere you go. So this is a massive change and people's reactions are a little taken aback, I think. At least the people who voted against this, I think a lot of it is the shock at how quickly people changed on this issue, as well as the general acceptance and usage of these products in a very short period of time. So that can have sort of a shock effect.

Mills: At the Yes on 820 campaign watch party, the message after the results is that: it isn’t a matter of if, but when do you agree that that’s the way forward on this issue?

Shortle: It depends. I think we're seeing right now there's going to be action in the other direction, given that the governor has said, you know, people are fatigued on the issue of marijuana, and therefore they plan to slow down the medical marijuana industry somehow. Now, we don't know what that looks like yet, but typically in politics, if people are given access to any sort of service or product, and then it's taken away, you'll then see a little bit of movement on the other side to then make movement toward something like recreational marijuana - only because they see something being taken away, and they want to increase access. So it's cyclical in a way, and it doesn't happen in a vacuum. It totally depends on the political actions that are taken by our leaders, by our political elites, as well as if people's access changes at all. Because right now we're getting the sense that the medical marijuana industry in Oklahoma is relatively accessible in a way that other states perhaps don't allow for.

Mills: Are there any other things that you're looking at or planning to watch for in the discussions being had after this vote that you think are pretty interesting?

Shortle: I found it interesting that there was a concerted effort by faith based leaders to oppose it, as well as the governor coming out against it. So we were seeing, right before the vote happened, elite cues to supporters and particularly to Republicans. But I think, you know, to citizens of the state overall that our leaders weren't really in support of this. A lot of them were not. In addition to our religious leaders, we're coming out and telling people maybe that this wasn't their favorite policy. So I would be interested in seeing what effects that those messages had on the citizens of Oklahoma and on different regions where we see more involvement of different types of political organizations that insert themselves into these conversations. I'm not exactly sure if it had an impact or not, or if people are, as the governor, so fatigued by marijuana. The jury's still out on that.

Kateleigh Mills was the Special Projects reporter for KOSU from 2019 to 2024.
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