BY JOHN M. WYLIE II
Oklahoma’s landslide 57%-43% approval last month of SQ 788 [medical marijuana] sent two clear messages:
- Citizen fury against taxpayer money and law enforcement intervention used to tip the scales instead created a volcanic inferno.
- Big bucks pushing dubious claims didn’t swing determined voters.
Statewide, 41,083 more votes were cast on SQ 788 than in all the gubernatorial primaries combined [where all voters were eligible for the first time since independents could get Democratic ballots].
Marijuana backers spent $154,980 or 30.7 cents per vote for the 503,990 [56.83%] of the votes cast on the issue, while expenditures for Mick Cornett were roughly $13.50 per vote for the 132,806 [29.4%] votes that got him into a runoff with Kevin Stitt for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Indeed, despite monumental spending and campaign efforts by the 10 Republicans, three Libertarians and two Democrats in the governor’s race, 4.8% or more of the 891,864 voters who decided the state question skipped everything else. The tally exceeded total votes cast in the last non-presidential general election in 2014 by 66,973 votes or 7.8%, and those cast in the primary that year by 430,095 or 100.4%.
In Rogers County, the state’s sixth largest, Sheriff Scott Walton’s actions at a forum on SQ 788 triggered worldwide attention. Many political observers believe this impacted the vote outcome on SQ 788 and three other issues.
Videos of those actions indicate he removed a man from the forum by grabbing him by the neck and apparently using his head to force open a door, though the man was neither arrested nor charged.
Walton’s actions triggered a lawsuit alleging assault and battery by the sheriff as well as criminal misconduct for that and the use of public funds to promote his personal political views against the state question and engaging “in conspiracy” with other “state actors” including the district attorney to violate voters’ constitutional rights.
Many observers say that helped ensure approval of the state question he vehemently opposed while killing three county sales tax issues – including two renewals which previously have easily passed, one for decades. One was crushed by a 3-1 “No” vote and the others failed by margins of 13% and 17%.
Officials preliminarily estimated lost revenue at around $8.5 million a year unless voters change their minds at a new election.
Attorney Brandan McHugh of Claremore expressed concern about the integrity of the election after filing the lawsuit, adding that “they are doing things to manage the vote” using public funds.
The state question drew an even higher margin of extra voters in Rogers County, 5.3%, and more than 3% voted on that plus the local questions while skipping candidates.
Election officials statewide reported some voters specifically asked for only the ballot with the state propositions and any local issues while others took candidate ballots but left the polls without marking or returning them to election officials.
The sheriff’s explanation for throwing out Charles “Chip” Paul, medical marijuana advocate and co-founder of the group behind the state question, was that although he was sitting in the back row of a large meeting hall, he was disrupting the June 18 forum by laughing at times at opponents’ public comments and raising his hand to ask questions.
The suit says Walton has a history of involvement in uniform and using online sheriff’s social media to promote political causes, and several individuals began video recording using smart phones when the sheriff confronted Paul.
Video went viral online and triggered intense media coverage statewide and nationally. On June 20, ACLU Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel issued a blistering statement:
“The violent actions of the Rogers County Sheriff signal a disturbing reliance on government force to silence political speech. Law enforcement must use force only under the most serious and threatening circumstances, a standard that Mr. Paul’s behavior did not come close to meeting …
“The Rogers County Sheriff is not a stranger to using his taxpayer funded office to wage a private war against SQ 788, but with the unwarranted, violent removal of Mr. Paul from a public forum, the Sheriff’s actions have become criminal.
“It is clear that Sheriff Walton believes that medical cannabis will disrupt his business model of arresting patients and seizing their cash and property; in fact, he has a history of using his government office and public funds in questionable ways to protect his bottom line.
“However, his political fear mongering escalated to dangerous and criminal levels last night when he and his deputies departed from their civic duty and unleashed their rage on an invited member of the public. Sheriff Walton’s criminal act is also a serious violation of the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions [and lack of action against him] would send a clear message that authoritarian government actors in Rogers County are above the law.”
The lawsuit filed in Rogers County District Court that day [CJ-2018-245] alleges Walton and other officials violated Paul’s civil, First, and Fourth Amendment rights; has a “custom, practice, policy and/or procedure” to do this to other political opponents through “intimidation and violence,” unlawfully detains persons who are lawfully on public property, assaulted lawyers seeking his signature on official documents “and beating citizens.”
Paul seeks damages in excess of $75,000, punitive damages, and a permanent injunction stopping Walton and his office from “engaging in further misuse of office.”
Walton has denied wrongdoing. Before the suit was filed, The Oklahoman quoted him as saying, “I have no regrets, no apologies, no remorse,” adding, “we did our best to maintain order in a crowd that was getting a little out of hand.”
He said he did “apply some pressure to the side of his head there and get compliance,” and that Paul balked just as they got to the exit, which resulted in his head bumping into the door.
“I’m not going to do something outrageously stupid like throwing his head through a door with a mob of cameras behind me. I wouldn’t do it if the cameras weren’t there,” he added.
In Tulsa County George Wiland, Tulsa County Election Board vice chairman, sent an email, using his title, explaining early voting procedures, what ballots would be available, and adding, “ALL top GOP candidates for governor [Cornett; Fisher; Jones; Lamb; Richardson and Stitt] recommend a NO vote on this question , which is said to be an actual vote for ‘recreational’ marijuana.” He said recipients “are welcome to forward this to others who may be interested.”
County Democratic Chair Kimberly Fobbs demanded that Wiland step aside to allow an alternate handle the election or that the State Election Board Secretary order him do so. Neither happened, so late on July 2 the Oklahoma Democratic Party Central Committee said it had demanded the State Election Board remove Wiland from the Tulsa County Board under Title 26 Sec. 2-114 of state law.
The State Board’s next meeting was at 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 3, and its agenda was filed and posted at 4:45 p.m. Friday, June 29.
A spokesman said the board could not consider the item at the meeting as “new business” because, although the formal complaint was not received until after the agenda was posted, a news release on a demand from the Tulsa Democratic Party to the State Election Board secretary had been issued well before the agenda posting. Its next scheduled meeting is at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4 in Room G28 of the State Capitol.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs displayed on its taxpayer-funded website a nine-page document similar to that circulated by opponents. It began with a large box headed “Medical marijuana does not exist” and contending “FDA has not approved marijuana as a safe and effective drug to treat medical conditions.”
The post was still up through and past Election Day, although FDA issued a press release the morning of June 25 headlined, “FDA approves first drug comprised of an active ingredient derived from marijuana to treat rare, severe forms of asthma.”
CNN immediately ran a major story. The decision was widely expected since a review panel unanimously recommended approval April 19 and predicted final action in June.
OBNDD ignored both actions in its post, which looked like an academic paper.
Proponents also blasted opposition ads claiming the law would permit smoking where tobacco smoking is banned, although state law allows smoking in some places, bans it in others, and covers the act of smoking, not what is smoked.
TSET, the state’s tobacco cessation trust fund, notes, “The law prohibits indoor smoking at places open to the public. Several types of businesses are exempt from this rule, including bars, clubs, bingo halls, and retail tobacco stores – as well as restaurants and workplaces that meet certain ventilation requirements.”
Still, voters spoke clearly, though some opponents vowed to continue. SQ 788 Is Not Medical Co-Chair Dr. Kevin E. Taubman said, “We are obviously disappointed … However, we respect the will of the voters,” but also said members “look forward to working with the Legislature and the Health Department to advance common sense regulations that benefit patients while protecting businesses and communities.”
After first saying she might call a special legislative session to ensure SQ 788 didn’t legalize “recreational marijuana,” Gov. Mary Fallin reversed course and announced it wouldn’t be necessary after all.
“The Health Department has been working with other agencies the past several months to develop a medical and proper regulatory framework to make sure marijuana use is truly for valid medical reasons,” she said in a statement released three days after the lopsided vote.
“The voters have spoken, and it’s important that our state has a responsible system up and running to meet the deadlines outlined in SQ 788. If circumstances develop that adjustments to the Health Department rules are necessary, those can be addressed when lawmakers return in regular session early next year.”
Fallin’s decision rankled backers, who warned of statewide citizen Congresses July 26 and retribution at the ballot box Aug. 28 and Nov. 6. Shawn Jenkins said the Vote Yes on 788 PAC was forming a new group, Oklahomans for Cannabis Cooperative, which believes a special session is needed since “there is a great deal of work to do … Some of the rules and regulations are of concern.”
His news release said the 1st Cannabis Congress of Oklahoma will convene July 26 using a “pyramidical democracy method to identify and prioritize issues important to patients across the state.” The Congress will coincide with the enactment day for 788 and begin at 6 p.m. as a “decentralized event” at locations around the state still to be determined.
Meanwhile Bud Scott, executive director of New Health Solutions Oklahoma Inc., the trade group for the coming cannabis industry which will provide thousands of jobs, said, “The governor’s announcement that she will not pursue a Special Session is not a victory for medical cannabis; it is a failure of leadership … The people have spoken.
“These are energized, passionate advocates who are ready to hold their elected officials accountable for their actions – or inactions – in the coming elections.”
Scott’s concerns were borne out July 10 when the Oklahoma Department of Health embraced strict regulations that more closely resembled opponents’ demands than the will of the people in approving SQ 788 – including a ban on smoke-able pot and a requirement that each dispensary have a licensed pharmacist as manager.
Even the department’s general counsel, Julie Ezell, warned some of the rules may exceed what was authorized by the voter-approved and likely would invite legal challenges.
As the ACLU’s Kiesel tweeted: “In banning all smokeable forms of medical cannabis in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Health Department just guaranteed litigation. This is completely inconsistent with #SQ788 & a responsible medical cannabis program.”
The voters have spoken, but the fire’s clearly far from out.
– John M. Wylie II published the award-winning Oologah Lake Leader from 1984 until retiring in 2017. Prior to that, he spent a decade at The Kansas City Star where he was part of the staff that won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Hyatt Regency Hotel skybridge collapse. A 2012 inductee into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, he now writes investigative and analytical stories on politics, energy and environment issues and major private and government frauds.
The Oklahoma Observer wants to know about the kind of taxpayer-funded abuse of power outlined in this story, which often is hidden from the rest of the state. We’d like to let the sunshine in, and would welcome information about such situations. Your identity will be kept in complete confidence in accordance with state law, but we will need your email address in order to follow up as we research each problem. Please send information to firstname.lastname@example.org. Our readers can help us find individual cases and patterns of abuse that may span the state.