Oklahomans Reject Recreational Weed in Low-Turnout Election

The measure would have enabled tens of thousands of residents to seek an expungement. It came amid Republican efforts to restrict the popular initiative process.

Daniel Nichanian   |    March 8, 2023

Governor Kevin Stitt, who opposes legalizing marijuana, called a special election where the measure would be on its own. (Governor Kevin Stitt/Facebook)

Oklahomans on Tuesday rejected a measure that would have legalized the possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use.

State Question 820 lost overwhelmingly, 62 to 38 percent. It trails in all Oklahoma counties, and the state’s rural areas rejected it by especially large margins.

In the five years since voters approved a measure to legalize medical marijuana, Oklahoma has seen an explosion in cannabis farms and dispensaries. Some business owners are making a fortune

But possession and sale outside of those strictures remains a criminal offense. An estimated 60,000 Oklahomans are weighed down by a past marijuana conviction and the number keeps climbing, with 5,000 people arrested over marijuana possession in 2020 alone, according to state data

“At a time when the state has legal marijuana millionaires, it seems both unjust and imprudent for there to be so many people who can’t get a job and can’t put food on the table for low-level marijuana convictions,” Damion Shade, executive director of OK Justice Reform, told Bolts

Had it passed, SQ 820 would have enabled these people to seek an expungement of their criminal records. Providing retroactive relief has become a staple of legalization efforts around the nation, since the effects of a conviction extend far beyond the sentence, affecting people’s ability to secure employment, housing, or college grants. And Black Oklahomans disproportionately suffer these repercussions; an ACLU study found that between 2010 and 2018, Black people were four times more likely to be arrested over marijuana than white people.

Organizers intended to qualify SQ 820 for the state’s November 2022 ballot. But challenges delayed approval and kicked it off to 2023. Then, Republican governor Kevin Stitt scheduled the referendum for March 7—a special election where SQ 820 would stand on its own—even though Oklahomans were already set to go to the polls on both Feb. 14 and April 4 for local and school board races. 

This left the state with a confusing schedule of three separate election days—each with their periods of mail-in ballots and early voting—within eight weeks.

“People can’t rearrange child care and jobs every month to go vote,” says Andy Moore, CEO of Let’s Fix This, an organization that promotes civic engagement in Oklahoma. “Doing it like this was clearly a way to suppress turnout.” 

While Oklahoma routinely sees some of the worst voter turnout in the nation (it was the lowest of any state in the 2020 presidential election), participation on Tuesday paled even in comparison to that low bar. Roughly 560,000 people voted in Tuesday’s election, 25 percent of registered voters and less than 20 percent of the total voting-eligible population in the state. 

When Oklahomans voted on medical marijuana in June of 2018, alongside the state’s primaries, nearly 900,000 people voted; turnout on Tuesday was 37 percent lower. 

“If we really want to get an assessment of what the voters want, we need to help them to the polls,” Moore told Bolts. “We can do things to make elections more accessible to more people so that we can have higher turnout.”

The governor who scheduled the election opposes legalizing marijuana and called on voters to defeat SQ 820, as did other prominent Republicans who said it would endanger the state. “I believe this is the best thing to keep our kids safe and for our state as a whole,” Stitt said on Twitter on Tuesday after the result was known.

Some Oklahoma Republicans are pushing changes to the ballot initiative process that could guarantee an odd placement on the calendar, lending credence to complaints that state officials are intentionally seeking to dampen turnout in those elections. 

One measure, introduced by Senator Warren Hamilton, would mandate that initiatives only go to voters in odd-numbered years, rather than on even-numbered years where turnout is far higher. The proposal goes against the burgeoning movement nationwide to move more elections to even-years in order to sync them with higher-turnout national election cycles and champion higher engagement.

Hamilton’s proposal is now technically dead because it did not survive a legislative deadline last week, though Moore warns that measures can always be revived by legislative leaders or poured into other legislative vehicles late into the session. But another measure, Senate Bill 518, is still alive. Introduced by Senator Julie Daniels, it would make it trickier to qualify a ballot initiative, doubling the time window for someone to challenge petitions and making it easier to invalidate signatures. The legislation would mandate that voters use their full legal name when signing a petition, raising the prospect that any misspellings, nicknames, or other deviations from a government ID could nullify their signatures.

Moore warns that this change would add to what he calls an “already totally bogus” verification process. Oklahoma officials drew complaints last year when they decided to outsource signature verification to a private vendor, claiming the authority to do so by invoking a new law, even if many legislators say they did not mean it to authorize outsourcing, The Journal Record reported last year

SB 518, which passed a Senate committee in February, is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor on Wednesday morning. 

Daniels and Hamilton did not respond to requests for comment about their respective bills. 

Republicans nationwide have retaliated against popular initiatives they oppose by championing an avalanche of measures that make it far harder for organizers to gather signatures to get them on the ballot. In Oklahoma, voters approved a number of ballot measures in recent years that circumvented conservative lawmakers, including medical marijuana in 2018 and Medicaid expansion in 2020. 

SQ 820 won’t add to that list, however. Besides making marijuana more accessible in the state, the measure would have raised revenue off of a 15 percent excise tax on the sale of marijuana that would have funded public schools and addiction treatment programs.

The expungement provision would have given tens of thousands of people the option to clear their records, though it would not have made that process automatic. Last year, for convictions that were already eligible for expungement in Oklahoma (marijuana is not among those), the state adopted a “Clean Slate” law that will lift the need for people to file a burdensome petition for relief. 

Shade, of OK Justice Reform, helped champion that “Clean Slate” law, which he says did not modify the criteria as to which offenses are eligible to be expunged—it only made the existing process automatic. With SQ 820’s failure, he says, he hopes to persuade state politicians to pass a bill to at least allow marijuana convictions to be expunged, which at least some Republicans seem to be open to. “It’s my goal to reach out to stakeholders and begin figuring out what type of legislative success we have going after this,” he said.