The ‘Wild West of Weed’ Faces Its Toughest Test

MUSKOGEE, Okla. — Johnny Teehee was sworn in as police chief of Muskogee in the summertime of 2018, barely three weeks after the state handed a referendum legalizing medical marijuana. Almost 5 years later, as he patrols town, he’s overwhelmed by the transformation weed has wrought on this struggling japanese Oklahoma city.

A block away from the First Baptist Church of Muskogee, the place Teehee is a parishioner, is a marijuana develop operation occupying what was the central publish workplace. A plot of land Teehee purchased with the intention of in the future constructing a home on it now sits subsequent to a 10-acre weed farm. Dispensaries are in all places — The Treehouse, Huge Pappa’s, Blaze-n-Bake, Pure Grass, Johnny D’s. At 420 Major St. in downtown Muskogee is a weed store emblazoned with an enormous mural that includes the likenesses of Merle Haggard and Bob Marley. “We do smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” it proclaims, cheekily refuting the opening line of Haggard’s 1969 redneck anthem “Okie from Muskogee.”

Altogether, there are 47 licensed medical dispensaries and 78 develop operations on this metropolis of 37,000 residents, the place one in 4 folks dwell in poverty and the median family revenue barely tops $40,000. Marijuana companies have change into so pervasive, the police chief says, that they don’t have the manpower or monetary assets to research whether or not they’re working legally


photo feb 18 2023 3 09 01 pm

“It’s an absolute nightmare,” Teehee mentioned, throughout an interview in his workplace on a latest Saturday afternoon. noting that he’s been a police officer for practically 4 a long time. “It’s a distinct world in the present day, definitely.”

The subject is private for Teehee: Each his mother and father struggled with habit, and he ended up being raised by his grandparents. “I’ve seen it; I do know what it’s,” he mentioned. “I do know that marijuana does nothing however result in different medicine.”

Teehee is now working to defeat a March 7 referendum that might open marijuana gross sales to anybody at the least 21 years outdated. He feels that many of the fears that he and different legislation enforcement officers expressed about medical marijuana legalization again in 2018, when the unique referendum handed, have been vindicated by Oklahoma’s expertise. A staunch Republican (Teehee completed third in a 14-candidate GOP main final 12 months for an open congressional seat), he isn’t significantly optimistic, nevertheless, that his fellow Oklahomans will vote down the leisure weed poll measure.

photo feb 18 2023 3 03 58 pm2

“I like to face on my Christian beliefs and being within the Bible Belt. However there’s simply been so many votes within the final a number of years that’s gone reverse of that,” mentioned Teehee.

No state within the nation has been as radically remodeled by marijuana legalization as Oklahoma. Lengthy infamous for locking up a better share of its residents than every other state — tens of 1000’s of them for non-violent drug offenses — over the previous 5 years, Oklahoma has change into a free-market weed utopia. Or, as some may say: a dystopian lesson in provide and demand.

There are actually roughly 12,000 licensed medical marijuana companies within the state, together with greater than 7,000 develop operations and practically 3,000 dispensaries. That features practically 3 times as many dispensaries as there are in California — which has roughly 10 occasions the inhabitants. The principal cause for this explosion of entrepreneurial exercise: There have been initially no limits on what number of licenses might be issued, they usually value simply $2,500 to obtain.


Almost 400,000 Oklahomans are enrolled within the medical marijuana program, roughly 10 p.c of the state’s inhabitants, by far the best degree of participation on a per capita foundation within the nation. There are not any qualifying circumstances for the medical program, so just about anybody who needs a card can get one. Greater than $3 billion price of weed has been offered since Oklahoma’s program launched in late 2018, after voters backed a medical marijuana legalization referendum.

However the nation’s wildest weed market has additionally sparked a backlash within the staunchly conservative state, particularly in rural areas which have been inundated with marijuana farms. That’s been exacerbated by dozens of raids during the last two years on unlawful develop operations, many of them run by Chinese language nationals, with a lot of the product being funneled into the illicit market past the state’s borders. Greater than 800 develop operations with ties to organized crime have been shut down throughout the crackdown, in accordance with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Harmful Medicine. Narcotics brokers have seized greater than 600,000 kilos of unlawful weed and made practically 200 arrests. Then, final November, police in a rural city an hour and a half northwest of the capital arrived at a pot farm the place 4 Chinese language nationals had been shot lifeless. The killings quadrupled the county’s annual murder depend for the previous two years and immediately offered a speaking level for statewide critics of the notion that additional legalizing weed might ever set up a secure, taxed and controlled market.

Additional clouding the prospects for the referendum is the timing. It should happen in a particular election in early March — not a traditional month for a statewide vote — with nothing else on the poll. Meaning it’s just about inconceivable to foretell who will present up on the polls.


“It’s all about turnout,” mentioned Steve Thompson, vice chairman of public coverage on the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, which helps lead the marketing campaign opposing legalization referendum. “I feel it’s a whole wildcard.”

Legalization supporters tout the financial advantages that adult-use gross sales will create, significantly the potential tax revenues from Texans coming throughout the border to purchase authorized weed. The leisure market would generate $434 million in tax revenues throughout the first 5 years of operations on gross sales of $1.8 billion, in accordance with an economic analysis commissioned by the Sure On 820 marketing campaign. Within the first 12 months of adult-use gross sales, it’s estimated that out-of-state consumers would spend roughly $200 million on hashish merchandise.

In addition they level out that the referendum would enable folks with marijuana convictions to have their information expunged, in addition to allow folks at the moment serving time for such crimes to petition to have their sentences lowered or scrapped.

cn23 0217 ok cannabis referendum 0099

“We’ll take Texas tax {dollars} to assist fund our faculties,” mentioned Michelle Tilley, the marketing campaign director for Sure On 820, in an interview on the marketing campaign headquarters in Oklahoma Metropolis. “That’s superb.”

Legalization advocates argue that Oklahomans views on marijuana use have modified dramatically within the practically 5 years for the reason that medical marijuana referendum handed by a margin of 57 to 43 p.c and dispensaries began popping up in seemingly each strip mall.

“They know folks now who’ve medical marijuana playing cards, or they’ve them themselves,” Tilley mentioned. “They’re realizing it’s not the large, unhealthy, scary monster that they have been instructed it was.”

However opponents of the legalization referendum suppose the experiences of the final 5 years will push voters in the wrong way. If the state’s medical market has confirmed to be wildly out of management, they argue, opening it as much as leisure gross sales will solely exacerbate the issues. They additional level out that efforts to scrub up the medical market by state lawmakers and regulators — together with hiring extra enforcement personnel and imposing a two-year moratorium on issuing new licenses — are nonetheless of their early phases.

“Increasing the marijuana market in Oklahoma, whether or not it’s to our neighbors throughout the Pink River or not, would solely be furthering an issue,” Thompson mentioned. “Let’s deal with fixing the issues fairly than pouring gasoline on the hearth.”

cn23 0217 ok cannabis referendum 0010

If Oklahomans do reject the legalization referendum, it could be one of the clearest indicators but of a fledgling nationwide backlash towards marijuana legalization. The motion has unfold quickly throughout the nation since voters in Washington and Colorado backed leisure gross sales in 2012, with 37 states now having medical markets and 21 permitting anybody at the least 21 years outdated to legally possess weed. However final November, adult-use referendums failed in three states — Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota — marking a uncommon setback for the legalization motion.

“There is a cultural conflict occurring between those that need to flip America into what they think about to be the great outdated days, versus those that desire a extra progressive nation,” mentioned Lawrence Pasternack, a legalization advocate and Oklahoma State College philosophy professor who has written extensively in regards to the state’s medical marijuana experiment. “It is a litmus check [for] what course the state and what course the nation is aiming in the direction of.”

‘Everybody’s broke and everybody’s ravenous’

After I first got here out to Oklahoma in October 2020 to report on the state that nearly in a single day had earned the nickname “Tokelahoma,” there was a palpable pleasure amongst legalization advocates and hashish entrepreneurs. They had been proud of the free-market system Oklahoma had established, a stark distinction to most states the place there are strict limits on licenses. I repeatedly heard optimistic discuss that Oklahoma — with its low-cost land and electrical energy, and heartland location — might change into the epicenter of the nation’s burgeoning hashish business. That’s, if federal restrictions on the drug had been ever relaxed and interstate commerce permitted, neither of which has occurred.

A 12 months later after I returned, the temper had darkened. The quantity of licensed hashish companies was nonetheless rising — finally hitting a peak of practically 14,000 in December 2021 — regardless that it had change into abundantly clear that the market couldn’t assist anyplace close to that many companies. Police had been raiding unlawful grows on a seemingly weekly foundation, and folks complained bitterly about retailers promoting merchandise outdoors authorized channels. The fixed chorus: There wanted to be clearer authorized guardrails across the business and extra stringent enforcement.

In some methods, the scenario has improved heading as much as the March 7 referendum. Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority Government Director Adria Berry — who was appointed to the publish in August 2021 — earns excessive reward from most lawmakers and business officers for beefing up enforcement and implementing a seed-to-sale monitoring system to make it more durable to divert merchandise into the illicit market.

A two-year moratorium on new licenses took impact final August, however roughly 2,600 new license functions had been obtained by state regulators beforehand. It has solely added to the lengthy string of failed or marginally profitable companies.


“They typically rent like their brother-in-law, their fraternity brother, all of their alcoholic associates that want a brand new begin in life,” mentioned Chip Baker, who has been rising weed — legally and in any other case — for many years and moved to Oklahoma from Colorado shortly after voters handed the legalization referendum in 2018. “However they’re not the very best folks to rent to run your small business, and it actually turns into this ‘Dangerous Information Bears’ kind of state of affairs.”

However in lots of different situations, entrepreneurs are struggling to run viable companies just because there’s an excessive amount of competitors and costs are too low-cost. That’s why they are saying, considerably counterintuitively, it’s essential to move the leisure legalization referendum. Extra prospects, they are saying, would increase demand; increased costs and income would naturally observe. It might additionally enable the state’s ramped up enforcement efforts time to take impact, they argue, and push some of the quasi-legal and financially shaky operators out of the market.


Blake Cantrell offered off his earlier enterprise enterprise, a meal-delivery service, simply as Oklahoma’s medical marijuana market was launching in 2018. On the time, it appeared like a fortuitous growth as he looked for the following entrepreneurial alternative.

“I’ve the chance tolerance for what this area is, at the least I initially thought, and I knew that different gamers wouldn’t till there’s federal legalization motion,” Cantrell recalled considering.

He’s now CEO of the Peak Dispensary, which has three shops in Oklahoma Metropolis and Edmund. However the glut of weed out there, Cantrell says, has led to freefalling costs and a surge in criminal activity.

In his eyes, two issues must occur so as to create a viable marketplace for hashish entrepreneurs: Enforcement must proceed to ramp up, significantly on the retail aspect, and the leisure legalization referendum must move. Peak is promoting joints to assist the Sure on 820, with $1 of every buy going towards that effort.

“We will’t compete with illegality, which is rampant out there,” mentioned Cantrell throughout a latest interview at one of Peak’s Oklahoma Metropolis places. “We’re white knuckling it till there’s significant enforcement.”

Travis Smith, co-founder of Oklahoma Metropolis develop Smokey Okie’s, mentioned he’s seen a ramp up in enforcement actions, however that it’s nonetheless solely concentrating on companies which can be working in plain sight.

“We bought inspected 3 times final summer season, however we’re proper right here within the center of town,” Smith mentioned. “It’s time for them to hit some gravel roads and exit to the place the true crime is.”

However he believes passage of the leisure legalization referendum is the one most necessary change that might bolster the market and supply an financial lifeline to companies.

“Everybody’s broke and everybody’s ravenous,” Smith mentioned. “This business is actually crumbling as we converse.”

However not all legalization advocates and hashish business officers are behind the legalization marketing campaign. Some favored efforts to enshrine legalization within the state structure, however a pair of petitions in assist of that failed to gather sufficient signatures to make the poll. The schism amongst pro-marijuana forces within the state that might dampen turnout on March 7.


I met Tom Spanier again in 2020 on the Oklahoma Metropolis dispensary that he operates along with his spouse Tracy, Tegridy Market (yes, inspired by “South Park”). On the time, he was thrilled with Oklahoma’s free market strategy to weed. However the criminal activity has satisfied him that there must be extra stringent enforcement.

Even so, he’s solely lukewarm on additional legalization. He worries about what lawmakers will do if it passes, significantly the prospect of including efficiency caps or establishing market rules that can drive out mom-and-pop retailers like Tegridy.

“We predict we’re sustainable. We don’t have any companions. We don’t owe anyone any cash,” Spanier mentioned. “We predict we’re going to return out on the opposite aspect in place, whether or not rec passes or not.”

‘Bang, bang, bang, bang’

Maybe no single occasion during the last 5 years has created extra damaging perceptions about marijuana legalization in Oklahoma than what transpired down a pink grime highway in rural Kingfisher County on Nov. 20, 2022.

Shortly earlier than 7:30 p.m., a 911 name got here in reporting a hostage scenario at a roughly 10-acre licensed marijuana farm simply north of Lacey.

When Kingfisher County Sheriff’s Deputy David Curler arrived on the scene about half-hour later, an Asian man began banging on his passenger aspect window, in accordance with the officer’s incident report. After Curler rolled down the window, the person — who spoke little English — made his fingers right into a pistol form and mentioned, “Bang, bang, bang, bang.”

Utilizing an app to translate, Curler was capable of verify that 5 folks had been shot on the farm, however he didn’t know the place the shooter was or whether or not he was alive.


A short while later, Deputy Jonathan Riedlinger found one other Asian man mendacity on the again seat of a black F-150 pickup truck lined in blood. That man was finally taken by helicopter 80 miles to a hospital in Oklahoma Metropolis.

Officers then entered a storage on the property and found a grisly scene. Deputy Riedlinger referred to as out the physique depend as he made his method by the storage: three dead men and one woman, each shot multiple times. Three different males had been found that night time hiding from the shooter. The subsequent morning, a fourth man was discovered hiding in a single of the handfuls of marijuana hoop homes on the property. All had been Chinese language nationals.

Three days after the preliminary 911 name, and greater than 1,500 miles from the crime scene, Miami Seashore police pulled over a automobile after it was flagged by a license plate reader and detained 45-year-old Chen Wu. He was charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of assault and battery with a deadly weapon and is awaiting trial. Previous to the shootings, Wu had allegedly demanded the return of $300,000 that he had invested within the weed farm, in accordance with court docket information. (Wu’s legal professional didn’t return a name searching for remark for this story.)

Three months after the quadruple murder, the property in Kingfisher County nonetheless accommodates the rudiments of a marijuana develop. Dozens of hoop homes are located on the southwest nook of the property. Picket pallets and items of tubing litter the grounds. The entrance door of a brick home close to the doorway to the property sits ajar. However no person surfaced as I cautiously inspected the property together with Republican state Rep. Mike Dobrinski and a photographer.

I had reached out to Dobrinski, who represents the realm, to get his tackle the referendum and the potential impression of the killings on voter sentiment. He supplied to take me to the scene of the grisly crime. Dobrinski instructed me he wasn’t totally stunned when he discovered in regards to the executions. He’d been listening to issues about unfamiliar people related to marijuana farms, typically carrying firearms, from residents within the sprawling district since he’d launched his first political marketing campaign in 2020.

“Abruptly we glance up and they’re in all places,” Dobrinski recalled. “It occurred comparatively rapidly and sort of blew up earlier than we knew what was occurring.”

cn23 0217 ok cannabis referendum 0044

Dobrinski didn’t assist the 2018 medical legalization referendum and was stunned when it handed by a double-digit margin. However his beliefs about marijuana legalization have developed within the ensuing years as he’s seen so many of his neighbors become involved in this system as sufferers or enterprise house owners. Dobrinski says he now helps a medical program if it’s really restricted to people who find themselves utilizing the drug for therapeutic functions and medical professionals are concerned.

“If it can provide you some ache reduction, in case your physician hadn’t been capable of offer you something that labored and this labored for you, why not let you may have that?” he reasoned. “And if that’s the true essence and the extent of it, no person would have an issue with it.”

cn23 0217 ok cannabis referendum 0078

However Dobrinski thinks legalizing leisure gross sales could be an enormous mistake, particularly given the spate of felony operations tied to the medical market which have surfaced within the state during the last 5 years. He has supported efforts on the Legislature to place harder guardrails across the present medical program, together with the two-year moratorium on new enterprise licenses that took impact final August, and needs to see how these changes play out earlier than contemplating extra adjustments.

“I’ve moved a good distance on this deal in a pair of years. I’d suppose that so much of folks have,” Dobrinski mentioned. “I do know what my desire is, however I received’t be shocked if it passes.”

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button