How Oklahoma Became a Marijuana Boom State


KEOTA, Oklahoma. – Across Oklahoma, a decidedly conservative state with a history of attracting people in search of the earth’s riches, a new kind of culture is invading old chicken coops, trailer parks, and fields where cattle grazed.

Next to a Pentecostal church in the small town of Keota, the smell of marijuana hangs in the air at the G&C dispensary. Strains with names like OG Kush and Maui Waui cost $ 3 a gram, or about a quarter. of the price in other states.

Down the street, an indoor farm is located in a residential area near mobile homes, one of the 40 in town of only 500 inhabitants. “It might sound strange, but this is where the action takes place,” said Logan Pederson, 32, who moved from Seattle to Oklahoma this year to run the small farm of a company called Cosmos Cultivation.

Since the state legalized medical marijuana three years ago, Oklahoma has become one of the easiest places in the United States to start a cannabis business. The state now has more retail cannabis stores than Colorado, Oregon and Washington combined. In October, it eclipsed California as the state with the most licensed cannabis farms, which now number more than 9,000, despite a population only one-tenth that of California.

The growth is all the more remarkable given that the state has not legalized the recreational use of marijuana. But with fairly lax rules on who can get a medical card, about 10 percent of Oklahoma’s nearly 4 million people have one, by far the most of any other state.

Fueled by low barriers to entry and a fairly passive approach on the part of state officials, weed entrepreneurs have flocked to Oklahoma from all over the United States. It only costs $ 2,500 to start, compared to $ 100,000 or more across the state border in Arkansas. And Oklahoma, a state that has long taken a tough stand against crime, has no cap on the number of dispensaries that can sell marijuana, the number of cannabis farms, or even how much each farm can produce. .

This unhindered growth pitted the old ranchers and farmers against this new breed of producers. Groups representing ranchers, farmers, sheriffs and dust collectors recently joined forces to demand a moratorium on new licenses. They cited rising land prices, illegal farming, and strain on rural water and electricity supplies among the reasons. In some areas, new indoor farms use hundreds of thousands of gallons of water.

But a moratorium is not likely, said Adria Berry, director of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, which oversees the industry and reported nearly $ 138 million in revenue retail, state and local taxes this year, through November, on the sale of cannabis.

Ms Berry, an early opponent of medical cannabis, says the industry is here to stay and that state marijuana law effectively prevents her agency from limiting the number of new licenses it approves.

At ground level, that means the number of Oklahoma cannabis companies continues to increase.

Mr. Pederson, the transplant recipient from Seattle, had served in the military and was looking for a new career when he learned about growing cannabis in Oklahoma earlier this year. Although new to the industry, he moved to Keota on his own to oversee the small five-person farm, which he said supplied state health clinics.

“There is culture shock for foreigners,” Mr. Pederson said of his move to a small town in Oklahoma. He said he plans to stay in the state for at least the next five years.

The signs of explosive growth are hard to miss. There are now cities with many more dispensaries than grocery stores. And cannabis farms now outnumber wheat and cotton farms. The industry has also created thousands of jobs in a state that remains among the poorest in the country. Industry supporters also argue that the less punitive approach to marijuana and other drug possession, along with other sentencing reforms, have eased the pressure on state prisons.

Ed Keating, the data manager at Cannabiz Media, which tracks the evolution of the cannabis industry, compared the startup costs of Oklahoma to those of Connecticut, a state with a similar population. There, cultivation licenses typically cost around $ 50 million, and buying a dispensary can cost over $ 10 million.

Large multi-state marijuana companies have largely chosen to steer clear of the Oklahoma boom, Keating added, opting instead for states with restricted market access and much more expensive. “These family dispensaries provide a service just like the local liquor store, the local car wash,” he said.

But unlike local businesses, where customers are typically residents, critics say growers in Oklahoma are producing far more marijuana than can possibly be sold in the state and is fueling illicit markets across the country.

Due to the lower costs for licenses, labor and land, growers can produce cannabis for as little as $ 100 a pound, then turn around and sell it for between $ 3,500 and $ 4,000 a pound. in California or New York, said Mark Woodward, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

“The profit margin is astronomical if you can move your operation to Oklahoma and get out of it,” Mr. Woodward said of Oklahoma producers serving markets elsewhere in violation of federal and state laws.

In the face of such violations, authorities have carried out a series of raids this year, shutting down nearly 80 farms since April in an effort to curtail production of marijuana on the Oklahoma black market. In Haskell County, a rural eastern part of the state, authorities seized 10,000 marijuana plants, 100 pounds of processed cannabis, as well as a host of guns and packages of cannabis in June. ‘money, a operation that had moved from Colorado to Oklahoma.

Momentum is building for even more powerful repression. Senator James Inhofe, a Republican, this year requested $ 4 million in direct federal funding for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics to fight illegal farms. And one Invoice introduced in the state legislature would allow county and city authorities to impose their own license caps.

Lawmakers recently allowed revenue from cannabis licenses to create a full-time enforcement unit, and the state’s narcotics bureau has hired nearly 20 officers. Another measure now allows the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to hire more than 70 new employees, mainly to work in the area of ​​compliance and enforcement.

As the influx intensifies, growers are complaining that the ever-expanding supply has caused cannabis prices to drop by about half in the past six months, to as low as $ 800 a pound for some. varieties, for $ 1,600.

Tara Tischauer, co-owner of Red Dirt Sungrown in Guthrie, a town north of Oklahoma City, said the drop in prices had cut her earnings by about a third this year. Yet his farm, which is part of a family business that also includes a hemp farm and garden plant greenhouses, employs 25 people and regularly produces around 125 pounds of cannabis per week.

“A few years ago, I thought Oklahoma would have been the last state in the country to launch cannabis,” Ms. Tischauer, 46, said. “If we can’t do it, it’s our fault. This is how a free market works.

Despite a saturated market, she said she believed the state’s cannabis industry was still in its infancy. Campaigners have started organizing to secure a referendum on the ballot next year that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana. This could strengthen producers in the state, which Ms Tischauser says may seek to meet demand from neighboring Texas, where lawmakers have opposed full legalization of cannabis.

For critics of Oklahoma’s approach to marijuana, this would be a step in the wrong direction.

“It smells like weed all the time, even here in our offices,” Haskell County Sheriff Tim Turner, a Republican, said, pointing to one of the dozens of licensed marijuana farms in his county, the one here in front of his department. . “We’re one of the redder states in the world, but we have the most permissive marijuana laws in the country. “


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