A majority of voters in Oklahoma rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older in the state.

The proposal – State Question 820 – also contained provisions that would have facilitated expungements for individuals with certain cannabis-related criminal records. In the end, however, 62 percent of voters decided against the measure with 38 percent voting in favor.

The vote was initially due to take place in November last year during the midterm elections but efforts to get the measure onto the ballot faced numerous obstacles, despite turning in almost double the required number of signatures to qualify the initiative.

First, the Secretary of State’s office failed to verify in a timely manner that the organizers behind the ballot had collected enough valid signatures. The measure was then subjected to multiple spurious legal challenges from opponents to marijuana reform. These challenges were eventually dismissed by state justices but not before the deadline for qualifying SQ 820 for the ballot had passed.

This led Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) to announce in October, under an executive proclamation, that a special election on the question of reforming Oklahoma’s cannabis laws to allow for recreational use would be held in March. Stitt remained opposed to adult-use cannabis legalization, as did several other prominent Republican lawmakers, including state Attorney general Gentner Drummond and US Senator James Lankford.

Many marijuana reform advocates believe the delay in holding the vote and the low-key nature under which it was held damaged the reform’s chances of gaining voter approval.

However, the setback follows a recent pattern of pushback against recreational cannabis legalization in conservative-leaning states. Voters in Arkansas, South Dakota, and North Dakota have also rejected proposals to legalize adult-use cannabis in recent times. The exception to this among Republican-led states is Missouri, where voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow for adult-use cannabis at the November midterms.

Another potential factor behind the low turnout of supporters for marijuana reform in Oklahoma could be the success of the state’s medical cannabis program.

Medical cannabis was legalized in Oklahoma following voter-approval of a ballot proposal in 2018. Since then, nearly 2,900 medical marijuana licenses have been issued while around 10 percent of Oklahoma residents hold a medical marijuana card.

That said, those who are not registered with the state’s medical cannabis program and are found by law enforcement to be in possession of marijuana still face some of the stiffest penalties among states in the US.

Possession of any amount could result in one year of jail time and a maximum fine of $1,000 for a first offense. Cultivating or selling even small amounts of marijuana is considered a felony, punishable by between two years and life in prison on top of a $20,000 fine.

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