OKLAHOMA CITY – Tens of thousands of Texans from the bustling Dallas-Fort Worth area routinely drive across the Red River to gamble in glitzy, Las Vegas-style tribal casinos or to relax at cabins or swim and ski in lakes that dot southern Oklahoma.
Soon, they could come north for another draw: recreational marijuana.
Oklahoma voters will decide Tuesday whether to approve a ballot measure that legalizes consuming the plant for adults 21 and older. The conservative state already has one of the nation's most robust medical marijuana programs, and industry proponents hope an influx of Texas consumers will be a boon for a market that's become saturated.
“There are thousands and thousands of Texans who are increasingly coming to Oklahoma as a tourist destination,” said Ryan Kiesel, a former state lawmaker and one of the organizers of State Question 820. “I want to be able to sell legal, regulated and taxed marijuana to those Texans over the age of 21, and take their tax dollars and invest them in Oklahoma schools and Oklahoma health care.”
The population of the booming Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex alone — closing in on 8 million people — is nearly double that of the entire state of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma is expected to see an increase of $1.8 billion in recreational sales that would generate about $434 million in excise tax revenue alone from 2024 to 2028 if the measure passes, according to an economic impact study sponsored by the cannabis industry. By far the largest number of out-of-state consumers would be from Texas, followed by Arkansas and Kansas, the report shows.
Oklahoma already has one of the most liberal medical marijuana programs in the country, with roughly 10% of the state's adult population having a medical license. Unlike most other states, Oklahoma has no list of qualifying medical conditions, allows patients to get a recommendation from a doctor online, and gives licenses that are valid for two years.
Supporters of SQ 820 initially tried to get the question on the November ballot, but a delay in verifying the signatures led to Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt calling for a special election just for that proposal.
People in the industry say Oklahoma's low barrier to entry led to thousands of licensed growers, processors and dispensary operators competing for a limited number of patients. While inflation is causing the cost of many products to go up, marijuana prices at dispensaries have plummeted, and many operators are going out of business. A website for cannabis-related sales shows thousands of Oklahoma grow operations and dispensaries up for sale.
"They allowed for a free-market cannabis industry, and that’s what everyone wanted, but now we need more customers,” said Chip Baker, a grower who also runs a marijuana garden supply shop in Oklahoma City. “There needs to be an influx of people here to buy this product. It’s just simple math.”
Kevin Pattah, a Michigan native who came to Oklahoma to get into the cannabis business, now operates six Mango Cannabis retail locations across the state. He said the price of 1-gram cartridges of marijuana concentrate that retailed for $60-$70 in 2019 is now going for $20. Prices for marijuana flower and other products also have plunged.
“There’s so much product on the market, and there’s only so much demand. It hurts everyone,” said Pattah, whose dispensary features a prominent digital screen with a countdown to Tuesday's vote. "We've felt the heat as well.
“Our average ticket was $130 at one point. Now they're spending an average of $60. So, it's less than half now.”
Pattah said the expansion of legalized sales in Michigan in 2018 was a huge boon to medical operators in that state, particularly those who ran dispensaries near its border with Ohio and Indiana.
While many in Oklahoma's cannabis industry are eager for recreational sales, opponents include a group of clergy, law enforcement and prosecutors led by former Republican Gov. Frank Keating, an ex-FBI agent. Current Gov. Kevin Stitt and nearly all the Republicans in the Oklahoma Senate also have announced their opposition.
Opponents cite an increase in the amount of Oklahoma marijuana being exported out of state and sold on the black market, as well as criminal activity associated with some marijuana grows, including the execution-style slayings of four Chinese nationals at an illegal marijuana farm in rural Oklahoma.
“SQ 820 throws a match into the middle of what already is a powder keg in rural Oklahoma,” said Logan County Sheriff Damon Devereaux, president of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association.
Not everyone in law enforcement is overly concerned about legalized marijuana. Sheriff Ray Sappington in Cooke County, Texas, which borders Oklahoma and includes a major north-south interstate, I-35, said that while his deputies may end up arresting more people for bringing marijuana into Texas from Oklahoma, it's not his top priority.
“Our issues are not marijuana, to be honest with you,” said Sappington, who said most people caught with less than 2 ounces of cannabis are issued a citation and released. “Fentanyl is so deadly, and we're facing that all across the nation. That's the battle. It's not marijuana.”
Still, marijuana legalization is a non-starter in the Texas Capitol and is poised to stay that way as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott settles into a new four-year term. That has left marijuana supporters in Texas looking elsewhere — including with ballot measures in some cities. In November, five Texas cities approved referendums to decriminalize marijuana possession. One was Denton, less than an hour’s drive from the Oklahoma border.
If approved, Oklahoma would be the 22nd state to legalize cannabis and likely the most conservative, following defeats of similar proposals in Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota last year. Under Oklahoma's plan, anyone over the age of 21 would be able to purchase and possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, plus concentrates and marijuana-infused products. People could also legally grow up to 12 marijuana plants. Recreational sales would be subjected to a 15% excise tax on top of the standard sales tax. The excise tax would be used to help fund local municipalities, the court system, public schools, substance abuse treatment and the state’s general revenue fund.
The proposal also outlines a judicial process for people to seek expungement or dismissal of prior marijuana-related convictions.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.
Follow Sean Murphy on Twitter: @apseanmurphy