A bill that would provide Oklahoma with a medical marijuana regulatory framework unanimously cleared a state Senate committee on Tuesday following its easy passage by the House of Representatives last month.
The Senate Rules Committee’s 10-0 vote on House Bill 2612, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana and Patient Protection Act, makes the legislation eligible for discussion before the full chamber.
“One thing I want to make very clear is there is nothing in this bill that repeals one word of (State Question) 788,” said Senate Rules Committee Chairman Greg. McCortney, R-Ada. “The statute that came out of the vote of the people is still 100 percent intact and 100 percent the law.”
McCortney, the Senate author of HB 2612, is a co-chairman of the bipartisan medical marijuana legislative working group. House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, is the other working group co-chairman and the bill’s House author.
Echols previously sponsored the bill before the House Rules Committee, where it passed unanimously. A summary Echols released at the time indicates that the bill would cost nearly $10 million to implement in its first year.
Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, sponsored the bill when it came up for discussion on the House floor last week. He is also a member of the medical marijuana working group.
As his House counterparts had done, McCortney cautioned the committee that the bill remains a work in progress. He said he thinks the Legislature “will spend the next many years perfecting not only this bill but this system in the state of Oklahoma.”
“We went out of our way to keep that language intact, so it is very obvious we are not changing SQ 788 at all,” he said. “We are only beefing up the language on top of it to make it much more like the bills we spent the morning passing in our chamber.”
The nearly 80-page bill would grant express rule-making powers to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, an organization within the umbrella of the state Health Department that issues patient and commercial licenses. The OMMA would have leeway to hire its own investigators and a senior director of enforcement, each of whom would “have all the powers of any peace officer” to look into violations of the act.
McCortney said his personal preference would be that those individuals have certification from the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training. The bill does not currently specify that CLEET certification is necessary in order to hold those jobs. McCortney said he expects a future piece of legislation will more comprehensively address the subject.
The bill also seeks modification of standards for the Workplace Drug and Alcohol Testing Act to allow for collection of urine, saliva or blood for drug screens. As written, it permits employers in “safety sensitive” fields such as firefighting and handling hazardous chemicals to inquire about medications, including marijuana, their employees use and make hiring decisions accordingly.
In response to a question from fellow working group member Sen. Darcy Jech, R-Kingfisher, McCortney said the employer-related language originated at least partly from talks lawmakers had with the State Chamber. The agency was among those who took part in meetings with the working group, along with medical professionals whose organizations publicly and financially opposed SQ 788.
“We loosened up some of those suggestions made by that State Chamber committee,” McCortney said of the bill, adding: “Really, the overall understanding of that is unless you work in one of those safety-sensitive positions, your employer does not really have a need to know what medicine you’re taking.”
Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, asked several questions about banking for medical marijuana businesses due to federal law considering marijuana a Schedule I drug. McCortney said “there’s a lot of concern” about the issue within the Oklahoma Banking Association, which presented information during one of the working group’s public meetings last summer.
A small number of financial institutions in the Tulsa area, such as credit unions, have expressed willingness to work with business owners using guidance handed down from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. The guidance, created during the Obama administration, gives such businesses a way to avoid federal interference as long as they comply with reporting requirements and all other applicable laws.
However, McCortney said to the Rules Committee: “This is still a federally illegal substance, and banks that take money made off of it will do so at their own risk. And the state cannot give them cover from the federal government.”
The Oklahoma Tax Commission’s role in implementation was another topic before the Senate committee, with Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, asking whether the bill still allows the OTC to collect a 7 percent tax on medical marijuana sales. McCortney responded that the revenue structure as written in SQ 788 remains unchanged.
The OTC considers the fee an excise tax, which makes products eligible for additional taxes imposed by municipalities or counties at the point of sale. A lawsuit challenging that status is pending.