By Sean Murphy, Associated Press
(AP) — From their keen taste for sun-ripened pot to their first meeting at a pro-marijuana rally in college in the 1990s, everything about Chip and Jessica Baker fits the stereotype of cannabis country in Northern California, where they lived for 20 years and started their pot business in rugged Humboldt County when it was the thriving epicenter of marijuana cultivation.
But the couple bid goodbye to the weed-friendly West and moved somewhere that might seem like the last place they would end up — Oklahoma.
They’re part of a green rush into the Bible Belt that no one anticipated when Oklahoma voters approved medical marijuana less than two years ago. Since then, a combination of factors — including a remarkably open-ended law and a red state’s aversion to government regulation — have created such ideal conditions for the cannabis industry that entrepreneurs are pouring in from states where legal weed has been established for years.
Though 11 states have fully legalized marijuana for recreational use, Oklahoma’s medical law is the closest thing to it: Anyone with any ailment, real or imagined, who can get a doctor’s approval can get a license to buy. It’s not hard to do. Already, nearly 6% of the state’s 4 million residents have obtained their prescription cards. And people who want to sell pot can do it as easily as opening a taco stand.
“Oklahoma is really allowing for normal people to get into the cannabis industry, as opposed to other places where you need $20 million up front,” said Jessica Baker.
In less than two years, Oklahoma has more than 2,300 pot stores, or the second most per capita in the U.S. behind only Oregon, which has had recreational marijuana sales for five years. Oklahoma has four times more retail outlets than more populous Colorado, which pioneered full legalization.
“Some of these states are regulating cannabis like plutonium,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association, the national trade group for marijuana businesses. “And the financial burdens that are placed on licensed businesses are so onerous, that not only is it very difficult to stay in business, but it’s also very difficult for the legal, state-regulated systems to compete with the illicit market.”
Marijuana taxes approach 50% in some California communities and are a factor in some business closings.
California requires a $1,000 application fee, a $5,000 surety bond and an annual license fee ranging from $2,500 to $96,000, depending on a dispensary’s projected revenue, along with a lengthy application process. Licenses can cost $300,000 annually.
In Oklahoma, a dispensary license costs $2,500, can be filled out online and is approved within two weeks.
Arkansas, next door to Oklahoma, also has medical marijuana, but like most such states, it allows purchase only for treatment of certain diseases, such as glaucoma or post-traumatic stress disorder. It also requires a $100,000 surety bond. Louisiana, which also tightly restricts prescriptions, has only nine licensed dispensaries.
Marijuana sales generated $54 million in tax revenue last year, accounted for the sharpest ever annual decline in empty mid-sized industrial properties in Oklahoma City, and booked up electricians around Tulsa outfitting new grow rooms with lights and temperature controls.
Even some longtime opponents of marijuana legalization have softened their tone.
Sheriff Chris West in Canadian County, one of many law enforcement officers who decried the 2018 legalization ballot measure, says a number of farmers he knows have decided to switch crops.
“I’ve had them call me and tell me, ‘Sheriff, we’re going to venture into this business and we’d like for you to come out and see our facility, because we want you to know what we’re doing.’ And these are longtime, good, godly, Christian families that see it as an income opportunity.”
AP Photo Sue Ogrocki