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One year after SQ 788 vote, Oklahoma near No. 1 for patients among medical marijuana states

When Oklahomans voted one year ago in favor of State Question 788, officials thought about 80,000 patients, or about 2% of the state’s estimated population, would register in the first year of a legal medical marijuana program.

As of June 24, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority has already registered more than 3.5% of the population as patients, with little sign of applications slowing. That participation rate puts Oklahoma near No. 1 among the 33 states that have some form of medical cannabis legislation in place as of May.

Comparatively low financial barriers, combined with a lack of restrictions on qualifying conditions, brought patients out in droves to apply for licenses, OMMA Executive Director Adrienne Rollins said last week.

Oklahoma’s medical cannabis law, unlike the laws of most other states, does not have a list of qualifying medical conditions patients must prove to enroll.

“I think everyone took the language of the state question to heart by not adding medical condition qualifiers,” Rollins said of lawmakers who worked the past legislative session to expand Oklahoma’s medical marijuana regulations.

The price of applying for a patient card online is about $105 and can be less than $25 for those on subsidized health care, which is more than Arkansas officials charge but near the average in most other states.

“We looked at different states’ (registration numbers) and what they were saying” about their respective application rates to come up with an initial estimate of 80,000 for Oklahoma, Rollins said. “But from that background of trying to do research, our high estimate of 150,000 wasn’t even close, so I have been really shocked by that,” she said.

By the numbers

U.S. Census data indicates Oklahoma has a projected 3.943 million residents as of 2018. With nearly 140,000 patients on record as of June 17, Oklahoma’s registration rate is about 35 per 1,000 people.

Maine, the closest comparison, removed qualifying conditions from its law last year after medical marijuana became legal in 1999 and does not require patients to register with the state. The Office of Marijuana Policy in Maine released statistics showing a printed patient certification card rate of about 34.3 per 1,000 residents in 2018.

California, a state with both medical and recreational cannabis laws, also does not require patients to obtain an identification card to take advantage of its medical law, Proposition 215, which took effect in 1996.

However, organizations such as the Marijuana Policy Project estimate California has a registration rate of about 31 patients per 1,000 residents.

“The numbers are already at least roughly tied with the highest participation rate in the country,” said Karen O’Keefe, the director of state policies for the MPP, a pro-cannabis nonprofit that advocates for legal reforms and also tracks cannabis use by state.

“In a lot of ways I think Oklahoma has among the best medical marijuana programs in the country in terms of patients having relief quickly without a bunch of hurdles they and their physicians have to jump through.”

Brian Fairman, a postdoctoral fellow working for one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, compiled a peer-reviewed research paper in 2015 on trends in medical cannabis program participation by adults in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. He said his research revealed spikes in places like Colorado and Montana in the early 2010s after the U.S. Justice Department publicly announced shifts in the priority it would give to marijuana law enforcement.

“After that, people saw that and thought ‘It’s going to be OK if I get medical marijuana and start a dispensary,’” Fairman said.

Colorado and Maine have since legalized recreational marijuana, and an AP analysis shows patient participation in medical cannabis programs can drop by as much as half in a few years after recreational marijuana becomes available.

Although Oklahoma did not have a law in effect during Fairman’s research, he said it is apparent residents responded well to not having to prove specific medical conditions and often having easy access to a wide array of dispensaries.

Making access easier

The OMMA as of June 17 has approved 3,211 grower, 1,548 dispensary and 859 processor licenses. Arkansas, which legalized medical cannabis in 2016, had only its third dispensary statewide open earlier this summer after lengthy legal battles over limitations on commercial licenses.

“I think it helped there was a noncompetitive application process,” O’Keefe said of SQ 788, adding that “You don’t have the government deciding how many pharmacies can operate. For the most part, we let the free market decide.”

Fairman said Colorado and Montana had more permissive commercial laws in the earlier years of their medical programs, which resulted in a “proliferation of dispensaries” and a corresponding increase in patient registration. Officials in both states attempted to limit that trend, he said, with Montana choosing to refine the list of medical conditions.

“In Montana they made it harder to get medical marijuana recommendations for chronic pain, which is usually the biggest one people cite when they want medical marijuana. You had to go through a couple extra hoops to get certified,” Fairman said. Adult patient registration numbers there dipped 75% by 2012 and have remained at only a fraction of the 2011 rate of about 40 per 1,000, he said.

Rollins said neither the OMMA nor the state Legislature anticipate making attempts to reduce the size of Oklahoma’s program.

The Oklahoma State Board of Health last July voted to enact emergency rules that would have banned consumption by smoking and require the involvement of pharmacists in dispensaries. However, public outrage — including, in some cases, from lawmakers — and a letter from the state’s attorney general led to a reversal of those changes.

Gov. Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 2612, a lengthier framework for the medical cannabis industry, into law earlier this year. It will take effect in late August, without restrictions likely to limit patient participation, and includes state-level protections for patients who own firearms.

“I think everyone has tried to make it easier for patients to have access to the system as far as applying and how they can get recommendations,” Rollins said. “The demand is obviously there, so I think it will be interesting once we get to renewal season (this fall) on the business side to see how many have been able to sustain and become operational.”

Betsy DeVos advocates for Obama-era Pell Grant program for inmates during Oklahoma visit

HOMINY — Leland Ross Stermer eagerly shook the hands of college deans and presidents and the nation’s secretary of education as he received his diploma.

Stermer, 57, is serving a 45-year sentence at Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy for his second armed robbery conviction. He was among more than 70 inmates to graduate from Tulsa Community College on Tuesday.

“This is a big deal. It’s going to help a lot of people,” Stermer said of the education program at the prison. “Guys in here, we know the recidivism rate; tools like this help us not come back here.”

Stermer began working on his associate degree decades ago but was unable to finish it until the opportunity presented itself at the prison. He received his associate degree in business on Tuesday and was among TCC’s largest graduating class from Dick Conner Correctional Center.

Betsy DeVos, U.S. Department of Education secretary, attended Tuesday’s graduation at the prison and advocated for the Second Chance Pell pilot program.

“You are all examples of what happens when students can use aid in expanded ways,” DeVos told the graduates. “You are why we propose the Second Chance Pell experiment, or pilot, become a permanent program.”

The Second Chance Pell pilot program, a President Barack Obama-era program to provide federal Pell Grants to qualified inmates, is part of what has contributed to the large growth of the educational programs at prisons in recent years. That pilot program rolled back some of the tough-on-crime policies of former President Bill Clinton’s administration. Pell Grants were available in the late ’80s and early ’90s prior to those policies.

Stermer said he ought to “be home in time for Christmas” after earning his associate degree. He said he is hopeful that he will find some sort of landscaping work near family in the Eufaula area.

TCC has offered educational courses at the prison since 2007 in a joint partnership that also now includes Langston University and the Department of Corrections. However, inmates’ access was limited by their ability to pay tuition and fees. Until the pilot program, only grants and scholarships funded through private donations were available.

“I think what we see here today is evidence of the power of learning and education, no matter who you are, where you are, and that we all have to ultimately be lifelong learners,” DeVos said after the ceremony.

The recidivism rate for those who don’t receive a post-secondary education while incarcerated is about one in four, TCC President Leigh Goodson said. For those who receive that education, she said, about one in 20 re-offend.

A Rand Corp. study from 2013 found that inmates who participated in correctional education were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years than inmates who did not participate in any educational programs, according to a 2016 Department of Education news release.

Seventy-two inmates graduated through the TCC program; 13 of them received an associate degree, and 59 graduated with a workforce-focused certificate.

Eighteen inmates were awarded a diploma for completing the prison’s high school equivalency program.

One person earned a bachelor’s degree from Langston University, which recognized 18 students for their academic performance.

“Graduation, whether back in Tulsa or here at Conner, is our greatest recognition and celebration of academic achievements and students’ success,” Goodson said.

Turnpike tolls rise again for cash customers starting today

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority on Tuesday voted to increase tolls by an average of 2.5% for cash customers.

The hike is the third and final increase to pay for Driving Forward, a turnpike expansion and improvement project, said Jack Damrill, OTA spokesman.

PikePass customers will not be affected by the toll hike that goes into effect July 15, Damrill said.

The OTA is encouraging drivers to pay by PikePass, which offers lower rates on tolls compared to those paying cash.

Under the PikePass system, tolls are automatically deducted from a prepaid account.

“We are leaving 78% of our customers alone,” Damrill said.

Announced in 2015, the Driving Forward package includes six bond-financed projects, including three benefiting the Tulsa area.

It includes work on the Gilcrease Expressway, Muskogee Turnpike, Turner Turnpike, H.E. Bailey Turnpike, Kilpatrick Turnpike and a new Oklahoma City turnpike.

The initial price tag was $892 million, a figure that has grown to $1.1 billion.

Damrill said acquiring the right-of-way cost more than expected.

John D. Jones, an OTA member, said tolls in Oklahoma are still considerably lower than the national average.

Damrill said for the national average, a passenger vehicle pays 20 cents a mile; it is 7 cents a mile in Oklahoma.

For heavy trucks, the national average is 73 cents a mile, while Oklahoma is 22 cents a mile, Damrill said.

Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz said the 2.5% is the final portion of the estimated 17% toll hike to fund Driving Forward.

Gatz said the recent extreme flooding has affected some of the construction projects.

He said he was asking for and appreciated the patience of the public.

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Democrats prepare for two nights of debates: Warren in the spotlight on Wednesday night

MIAMI — After circling each other for months, Democratic presidential candidates will converge on the debate stage in Miami on Wednesday as the campaign enters a new — and likely more contentious — phase.

Given the massive field, the debate will be split over two nights with 10 candidates appearing each evening. It’s the highest-profile opportunity yet for many White House hopefuls to offer their vision for the country and — if for just two hours — chip into a political news cycle often dominated by President Donald Trump.

Elizabeth Warren will take center stage at the debate’s opening night. The Massachusetts senator’s constant stream of policy proposals has helped her campaign gain ground, and she’s the sole top-tier candidate who will appear at the Wednesday debate. Widely viewed as a talented debater, Warren is well positioned to showcase her strengths, strategists say.

“I don’t think anyone else on that night has her level of skill and her level of experience in this format,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. “I think she should look at this as an opportunity to really shine and come out of the first night as the one that is dominating the conversation.”

Yet Warren could still face challenges. The other candidates on stage Wednesday aren’t as well known and could use the moment to take aggressive stances against Warren in an effort to find a breakout moment.

“She’s liable to have a target on her back and a lot of people potentially coming after her on that stage,” said Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America. “But on the other hand, that will let people see how she handles attacks and can fend them off.”

Beyond Warren, the candidates who will debate on Wednesday are Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio; former Reps. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and John Delaney of Maryland; along with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and ex-Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro.

One split that could emerge Wednesday centers on Medicare for All,” the single-payer health plan introduced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a fellow Democratic presidential candidate, and supported by Warren and others. But some candidates are not fully on board, preferring more incremental reforms. Delaney has been especially vocal in his criticism.

With so many White House hopefuls on stage, it could be difficult to dive too deep on any given issue. NBC News, which is hosting the debate, said candidates will have 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds for follow-ups. They will be allowed closing statements but no openers.

All the candidates are competing ahead of a major fundraising deadline that will have lasting implications. The end of the second fundraising quarter on Sunday gives candidates a chance to make a splash with strong numbers ahead of the mid-July deadline to report that information to the Federal Election Commission.

A strong debate performance could fuel more donations, which is critical to the candidates’ ability to participate in future debates. The Democratic National Committee is enforcing more stringent requirements for participating in the presidential primary debates this fall, so candidates who are struggling to gain a foothold may not have another similar opportunity on a nationally televised stage unless they are able to significantly boost their standing in the polls and fundraising numbers.

“For some of them, this might be their best opportunity to land a blow,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist.

The debate will unfold as many Democratic voters are just beginning to tune in.

Only 35% of registered Democrats say they’re paying close attention to the campaign, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Two-thirds say they’re paying some or no attention.

“People may have heard (the candidates’) names, but they couldn’t pick them out and don’t know much about them,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist. “None of them are going to seal the deal in the first debate, but they need to get people interested enough to want to learn more.”

The debate’s second night, on Thursday, features more of the leading Democrats in the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden will stand at center stage with Sanders at his left and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, at his right. Biden has come under fire from fellow Democrats after recently recalling that the Senate was once a more civil place, pointing to his work with two segregationist former senators.

The remarks elicited condemnation from his rivals, notably Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who raised questions about Biden’s understanding of the history of segregation. Booker, who was among Biden’s sharpest critics, called on him to apologize.

Were the two candidates to share a stage, the episode could have been a defining moment of the debate, with the two men discussing the issue in real time. But Booker will take the stage on Wednesday, with Biden and Harris among the candidates to follow on Thursday.

If Booker were to bring up the episode or respond to a moderator’s question about it, Payne said, “it’s almost like he’s attacking him in absentia.”

A memo released by the Booker campaign ahead of the debate said their goal was “straightforward: Cory will look to introduce himself to voters just tuning in to the race.”

Several of the candidates went to Florida early to raise money or court voters in the critical battleground state. Buttigieg held two Florida fundraisers on Monday night and stayed in Florida for debate prep. Warren, meanwhile, was in the state on Tuesday to campaign for her new proposal to boost election security.

Not to be outdone, Vice President Mike Pence was also in Miami on Tuesday to launch “Latinos for Trump” in an effort to engage Latino voters for 2020.