Oklahoma Marijuana Legalization Initiative Faces Two More Legal Challenges In State Supreme Court As Complaint Deadline Closes
The window to file challenges to an Oklahoma marijuana legalization ballot initiative closed on Thursday—but not before two more complaints were submitted to the state Supreme Court, for a total of four that the justices must now sort out. Meanwhile, even if those protests are dispensed with, the reform proposal’s official placement for the November election is still in question amid separate legal scrutiny over ballot printing deadlines.
Activists are hoping for a swift resolution to all of the challenges—which they called “frivolous” in a press release on Thursday—as the official ballot placement litigation proceeds. The first two, filed earlier this month, concerned the validity of signatures for the ballot measure that the secretary of state’s office certified last month.
A third, submitted on Wednesday, challenges the ballot title approved by the state attorney general. And hours before the challenge deadline, a fourth complaint was filed by a pro-reform activist who is also taking issue with the ballot title.
Please read for the latest update from our campaign and let us know what you think. We’re still going and fighting the special interest groups trying to take away your right to vote! #letthepeoplevote #oklahoma#legalizeit#sq890 pic.twitter.com/agK3Lo39q5
— Yes on 820 Campaign (@YesOn820) September 16, 2022
Plaintiffs in the third challenge—two of whom are affiliated with the Oklahoma Farm Bureau—argued that the language of the ballot title is misleading because it doesn’t adequately inform voters about five policy impacts of the proposal. For example, they say the lack of disclosure about decriminalization provisions for people under 21 and firearm-related implications makes the title affirmatively misleading.
Curiously, the complaint doesn’t seek to knock legalization off the ballot altogether, as the first two challenges are seeking; rather, it is asking the court to strike the current ballot title and replace it with the one that the campaign originally submitted before accepting the attorney general’s revisions.
Luke Niforatos, CEO of the Protect Our Kids PAC, said that he “partnered to make this challenge happen.” His organization was also involved in litigating against a Missouri cannabis legalization ballot measure, but that state’s Supreme Court ultimately sided with the legalization campaign and cleared the initiative.
Glad to have partnered to make this challenge happen in Oklahoma. More to come soon. https://t.co/Yd1FzydD6D
— Luke Niforatos (@LukeNiforatos) September 15, 2022
The fourth and final complaint comes from cannabis activist Jed Green, who previously failed to convince the court that State Question 820 violated the state Constitution’s single-subject rule for ballot measures and that the summary was misleading.
In his new filing, Green—who led a separate campaign that attempted to put legalization on Oklahoma’s 2022 ballot before giving up that effort—similarly contends that there are compromising omissions in the ballot title, though he pointed to different components than those cited in Wednesday’s earlier complaint.
Specifically, he said that the title misses three “fundamental” provisions of the law that would be enacted if voters approve the initiative: 1) that the legislature could still amend the law if voters approve it, 2) that fines for public consumption would be limited to $25 and 3) that medical cannabis dispensaries would need to obtain a second license to serve adult-use consumers and adhere to those separate licensing requirements.
Green proposed a revised ballot title that he’s asking the court to adopt in lieu of the attorney general’s version.
The earlier complaints that challenge the signature certification and are meant to remove legalization from the ballot came from a former Republican state lawmaker, Mike Reynolds, and a controversial cannabis activist, Paul Tay.
The former challenge alleges that a recently enacted state law on election integrity made it a “practical impossibility” to review signatures because, he said, they’ve been made inaccessible without taking legal action to review.
He received the signature data for State Question 820 last week, and he’s asked the court to grant a 10-day signature review period as well as a hearing and response from the secretary of state’s office regarding the merits of a challenge “arguing disapproval of all the signatures.”
Tay, meanwhile, challenged a different legalization measure earlier this year, and he recently renewed similar arguments in a complaint against SQ 820.
Specifically, he’s contending that signatures collected on sovereign Indian land are not valid. He made a similar argument against a since-withdrawn legalization measure that was led by a separate campaign.
An attorney for the campaign said in one of its recent filings earlier this month that court precedent has clearly undermined Tay’s argument, and the court should promptly make a judgment and dismiss the case.
“We remain confident that State Question 820 has enough time, valid signatures, and support to be printed on the November ballot,” Michelle Tilley, campaign director for Yes on 820, said in a press release on Thursday. “We believe the Court will act quickly to dismiss these half-baked challenges aimed at thwarting Oklahomans’ right to vote on State Question 820 this November. I would also remind our challengers that Oklahomans do not take kindly to folks trying to take away our rights, and the state has severe penalties for filing lawsuits that waste everyone’s time.”
While the deadline to submit challenges has now passed—and another deadline to mail ballots to state voters who live overseas is looming—the state Supreme Court now has the final authority over whether voters will get to decide on legalization in November.
Oklahomans for Sensible Marijuana Laws (OSML) submitted more than enough signatures to qualify their measure in July, and they also accepted ballot title language revisions from the state attorney general before the secretary of state’s office certified the signatures last month.
OSML has spent a significant amount of time in the state Supreme Court this election cycle, and the court recently handed activists a temporary win by announcing that it would be delaying its decision on whether the state-certified legalization initiative will appear on the November ballot.
While the measure was certified by the secretary of state’s office, officials have argued that the campaign risked missing ballot printing cutoff dates. Activists then filed a lawsuit arguing that the deadlines suggested by state officials were “arbitrary,” and asked the Supreme Court to force the state to put the measure before voters in this year’s election.
A major contention in the case is the fact that the secretary of state’s ballot verification process was outsourced to a third party for the first time this year, and activists argued the company slow-walked the signature certification, potentially jeopardizing their ability to meet the printing deadline.
In a June letter, Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax also asserted that the governor would have needed to issue an executive proclamation to officially certify any ballot initiative by late last month. But advocates have pushed back on that interpretation.
The court ruled that it would be assuming jurisdiction of the case—and that the dispute would be “held in abeyance because the time period for filing objections to either the signatures or the ballot title has not yet expired.” That meant that the justices were not ready to decide on the central question and will wait until the normal ballot placement process works itself out before weighing in.
At this stage, the court could have simply issued a declaration that the campaign failed to have their petition processed in time, keeping it off the November ballot. But rather than take that action, it’s temporarily letting the measure proceed through the normal challenge process despite state officials arguing that key deadlines have already passed.
That kicked off the 10-day challenge period, which has now seen several complaints filed. If the court resolves those challenges in the campaign’s favor, the justices could then force the state to print the measure on this year’s ballot in spite of the allegedly now-passed deadlines. Alternatively, the measure could go before voters during the next state election—either in November 2024 or in a special election if one is called by the governor prior to then.
“The end of the protest period marks an important milestone for the campaign and Oklahoma voters,” Ryan Kiesel, a senior advisor with the legalization campaign, said. “We respectfully urge the Supreme Court to use its constitutional authority to protect our right to vote and end these political games. Over 117,000 Oklahoman voters—Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats, and Independents from all 77 counties—signed this petition. We have a right to vote on State Question 820 in 54 days on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, and our rights should not be thwarted by obvious delay tactics from special interest groups.”
The measure would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis, grow up to six mature plants and six seedings for personal use. The current Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses.
A 15 percent excise tax would be imposed on adult-use marijuana products, with revenue going to an “Oklahoma Marijuana Revenue Trust Fund.”
The funds would first cover the cost of administrating the program and the rest would be divided between municipalities where the sales occurred (10 percent), the State Judicial Revolving Fund (10 percent), the general fund (30 percent), public education grants (30 percent) and grants for programs involved in substance misuse treatment and prevention (20 percent).
People serving in prison for activity made legal under the measure could “file a petition for resentencing, reversal of conviction and dismissal of case, or modification of judgment and sentence.” Those who’ve already served their sentence for such a conviction could also petition the courts for expungement.
OSML, which is being backed by the national New Approach PAC, is one of two citizen efforts to put legalization on the ballot that launched this year. The other campaign, Oklahomans for Responsible Cannabis Action (ORCA), was run by Green, the latest challenger of SQ 820.
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Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) claimed in his State of the State speech earlier this year that voters were mislead when they passed an earlier 2018 initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state, arguing that the measure may require legislative reform.
The governor said that the ballot question passed by voters “was misleading, and it has tied our hands as we regulate the industry.”
For his part, state Rep. Scott Fetgatter (R) said in an op-ed for Marijuana Moment that was published in March that states should legalize cannabis, but he wants to see the legislature craft thoughtful regulations for an adult-use program, rather than leave it to voters at the ballot.
Meanwhile, an Oklahoma Senate committee in April unanimously approved a House-passed bill to allow for the cultivation and administration of psilocybin by eligible institutions for research purposes—but the version that senators advanced omits a broader decriminalization provision that had previously been included. The legislation was ultimately not enacted before the end of the session.