“I had literally no experience growing anything at all,” said Ellie McDaniel, who ran a laundromat until 2018. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
That all changed four years ago when Oklahoma voters passed State Question 788, which legalized medical marijuana with very few restrictions. McDaniel’s cousin Travis Smith remembers that moment.
“I was a lawyer. She had a laundromat and we started talking about if this thing goes through, could we do a deal?” Smith recalled. “When it was over in June, the next week we were in the Colorado consultation, talking to advisors, talking to growers.”
The cousins quickly established Smokey Okie’s, a wholesale grow operation. They built a warehouse in the small town of Spencer, just outside of Oklahoma City. In the early days, the cousins learned as they could.
“I’ve had a lot of failures,” admitted the company’s current head grower. “I mean, we didn’t come out of it fantastically. You know, we came out of this like we stumbled through, you know, and learned from every mistake we made.”
“At least it was in the beginning when we weren’t making any money anyway. So it didn’t really matter.”
The company now has several family members and around two dozen full-time employees.
Smokey Okie’s had a lot of company. A new land rush began in Oklahoma seemingly overnight.
“Once I knew it was going to happen, it was safe. I was on the first flight, you know, that’s how it all started,” said Josh Camden, who has been watching the Oklahoma business from California.
Once it was over, he moved his entire family to Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City. He now runs a cultivation business on a few acres of rural land, in addition to owning several dispensaries under the Emerald Fire brand.
“It was shocking to see how quickly this small team status has changed. You know, it’s like there was no traffic when I got here,” Camden said with a chuckle. “You go out for dinner on time and get in immediately. No more. Oklahoma is booming. It is shocking.”
Mike Girocco also moved from the West Coast. The 62-year-old now runs Releaf Laboratories, which stocks just about anything that contains THC that isn’t raw, dried flower.
“That’s kind of, if we’re Coca-Cola, that’s our cane,” Girocco said as he picked up a handful of dried flowers. “We process it into various products. So we don’t make drinks, but we do make vape cartridges. We make gummies, dabs and concentrates.”
“My dad was an opioid addict for 20 years and he could never quit,” Girocco said, his voice trailing off as he recalled what brought him to Oklahoma.
This pursuit led him to build a $2 million processing facility. But it’s not easy to make a profit.
“It’s crazy. It’s like having a tiger on your tail every day. So that’s the only thing. So it’s tiring to work 24/7, 365,” admits Girocco, who has had to lower wholesale prices because of so much competition.
“Oklahoma is the cheapest place to start,” said Adria Berry, executive director of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA), the agency that regulates everything related to cannabis. “We have a license fee of $2,500.”
Because Oklahoma has such a low entry price into the business and the number of licenses issued is unlimited, the profit margin for those who are already in business is really tight. It’s one of many growing pains the industry is seeing.
“It was, well, it was such explosive growth in such a short amount of time that we, we basically left that open invitation across the United States or the world to basically come to Oklahoma,” Berry said. “You know, it’s pretty cheap to get a license here. It’s pretty cheap to own land here. Uh, and they felt like nobody was looking for a while, and that’s kind of true.”
Law enforcement against illegal growers, as well as those attempting to ship marijuana across state lines, is increasing but has not kept pace with the exponential growth.
There are currently more than 8,000 licensed growers, 2,300 dispensaries, 100 processors, and about 150 other cannibal-related businesses in Oklahoma.
Around 400,000 Oklahoma residents, approximately 1 in 10, have medical patient cards. You can see the full data in the statistics kept by OMMA.
“Yes, we have a very big oversaturation problem,” mused State Representative Scott Fetgatter, a Republican lawmaker dubbed “the godfather of marijuana.”
“You know, I opposed legalizing marijuana like I was staunchly opposed to it,” the legislature said between votes in the Oklahoma State Capital.
However, following the passage of state Question 788, Fetgatter has taken a pioneering role in passing various marijuana-related laws to manage the burgeoning industry.
“It’s not my job to always let my personal feelings flow into my work. Sometimes it’s my job to listen to the wishes of my voters,” said the legislator about his change of perspective. “I would say Republicans enjoy marijuana and use it medicinally as much as Democrats do, or at least in Oklahoma.”
Since legalization, OMMA has raised $90 million in tax revenue, with more than $67 million going to the state education fund. Whether that’s a stroke of luck for proponents of public education or just a drop in the bucket is debatable.
But Blake Cantrell, an attorney-turned-CEO of Peak Dispensaries, says his home state is clearly benefiting. “There’s no question it’s a missed opportunity for Texas. It’s certainly not too late, but I think it’s somewhere in the mid-1930s, the percentage of states that have a meaningful program in some respect. Texas is too big a state to be a minority in.”
Cantrell, who briefly lived in Dallas before returning to Oklahoma to pursue a full-time commitment to the medical marijuana industry, now runs a trade organization on the subject. He and others have learned that full participation in the political process is essential to ensure the industry’s survival.
“I should have expected that, but essentially every year since we died there’s somewhere between 20 and, no exaggeration, 60 bills going through the House or Senate, both of which in many cases have a negative impact on the industry affect. ‘ Cantrell said.
“It’s becoming an increasingly important part of my role as CEO to make sure the voice of the industry is heard and that common sense is used to legislate so that we don’t just have to deal with whatever is decided without any input from the industry .”
If you hear Cantrell speak, he could be talking about every major tax-producing industry in the state. In Oklahoma, the business has clearly evolved well beyond a backyard grower. Billions of dollars and thousands of livelihoods are at stake.
“Cannabis is not controversial in Oklahoma,” points out Travis Smith, owner of Smokey Okie. “It’s a new sector. We create jobs. We employ a lot of people. I mean, we have health insurance for our employees. We have 401,000 options. We’re a real company.”
And what these real companies are pushing for is full legalization of recreational marijuana in Oklahoma. Currently, you still need an Oklahoma driver’s license and a doctor’s card to gain access to marijuana. When full recreational use is over, producers hope it would attract significant cannabis tourism from Texas.
“We have 4 million people in this state. I would like access to their 27 million if they cross the border and buy our product,” Girocco said.
Right now, crossing the Red River southbound doesn’t mean marijuana for anyone.
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https://abc13.com/texas-marijuana-pot-laws-is-weed-legal-oklahom-medical/11865479/ Is Texas missing something? A deep dive into Oklahoma’s booming marijuana market