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Unity Bill hits a high note with legislators and advocates

 

September 1, 2019



Governor Stitt signed the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana and Patient Protection Act – also called the “Unity Bill” – on March 14. This legislation is the result of months of work by the bipartisan medical marijuana working group, and it passed easily through both the House and the Senate. In crafting this law, legislators sought input from a number of interested groups including law enforcement, chambers of commerce, banks, tax commission leaders, and cannabis advocates. According to Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, the goal of the working group and the legislation is to “ensure that State Question 788 would be implemented in the most efficient and responsible way possible” and ensure the law will be “implemented as intended.”

Why Do We Need a Unity Bill?

State Question 788, passed by voters last summer, is by all accounts a fairly permissive medical marijuana law. There are relatively few restrictions compared to other states. It established no list of qualifying conditions for getting a medical marijuana license, leaving it up to doctors to determine who needs marijuana. The only other state to fashion their medical marijuana law this way is California. The version of the law passed by voters also puts few restrictions on dispensaries (aside from being 1,000 feet from schools). Advocates for the law were excited about the victory but concerned that once the legislative session began, lawmakers would attempt to change not only the letter of the law but also the spirit.

Those fears were not unfounded. After SQ 788 was passed in July, the state Board of Health met to create administrative rules for the state’s medical marijuana program since the Legislature was not in session at the time. These rules included limiting the sale of smokable marijuana, limiting THC concentration, and requiring a licensed pharmacist to manage dispensaries. They were ultimately challenged by Attorney General Mike Hunter who believed the board was overstepping its authority.

What’s In the Unity Bill?

The Unity Bill clarifies SQ 788. The cornerstone of this bill is the creation of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) under the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) to regulate the medical marijuana program, including the authority to investigate alleged violations of the law and administer penalties. It also establishes the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Revolving Fund for fines and fees collected by the OMMA. Other changes include:

• Establishing requirements for testing medical marijuana inventories for contaminants and THC/CBD content

• Requiring the use of child-resistant containers at the point of sale

• Labeling requirements including a universal symbol for THC, potency, a statement that the product has been tested for contaminants, and a ban on the packaging that is made to appeal to children

• A ban on counties making laws that restrict access to medical marijuana

• A ban on licensed medical marijuana users being denied access to safety net programs such as SNAP and Medicaid because of marijuana use

• Affirming the right of medical marijuana patients to own firearms

• Restrictions on smokable marijuana in public that mirror restrictions on public tobacco use

• Reduced license fees for veterans who are 100 percent disabled

• “Seed-to-sale” inventory tracking requirements for dispensaries

• Creation of a caregiver license, which would authorize caregivers to buy and deliver products to a medical marijuana license holder

• Rules and regulations for establishing medical marijuana businesses including commercial growers, processors, transporters, laboratories for testing, and dispensaries

• Regulations on medical marijuana research

Some Controversy Remains

Two parts of the Unity Bill are somewhat controversial among medical marijuana advocates. The law bans employers from penalizing applicants for a job based on a positive test for marijuana with one exception: those with “safety-sensitive” jobs, including firefighting; jobs that require handling a firearm, hazardous materials or power tools; and child care workers. Advocates argue that this is unnecessary because there are already laws that cover intoxication in safety-sensitive jobs. Also, there is also no standard test to determine if someone is under the influence of marijuana at a particular moment and no standard for how much THC in one’s system constitutes being impaired.

The creation of a medical marijuana patient registry set forth in the new law also concerns some advocates. The law allows all physicians access to the registry, and advocates are concerned that some doctors who provide pain management or cancer treatment will refuse to treat patients who are using medical marijuana. Some doctors are hesitant to treat medical marijuana patients due to differences in federal and states marijuana laws that could lead to doctors losing their ability to prescribe controlled substances.

While there is some disagreement about these finer points of the law, advocates for medical marijuana are generally happy with the bill. Shelley Free, executive director of Oklahomans for Health – a group that advocated for SQ 788 – stated, “Although it’s not perfect, I respect that we got so much help and cooperation from legislators. We have a foundation to build from now.”

The Unity Bill is Just the Beginning

Sen. Greg McCourtney said he expects additional bills to follow this law that will address other concerns, and there are nearly 20 other pieces of legislation – “trailer bills” – that still need to be heard this session. These bills include measures that allow for more taxes on medical marijuana, outline employee and employer rights in regards to medical marijuana use, and make regulations for physicians – including the ability to limit the amount of THC a patient can purchase each month. Members of the working group see the Unity Bill as a starting point and anticipate that the Legislature will continue tweaking the medical marijuana program as issues arise.

 

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