OKLAHOMA CITY – Reps. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, and Kevin West, R-Moore, on Tuesday held an interim study before the House Alcohol, Tobacco and Controlled Substances Committee to discuss the impact to counties from the explosion of medical marijuana, growers, dispensers and users.
"We're following up today on what we saw in other medical marijuana studies and how this is affecting our counties," Humphrey said. "We're looking at what we need to do as a state to improve and do a better job of regulating this new industry."
West said he's heard from numerous constituents about the effect of this industry in his House district, from grow facilities to dispensaries.
"Just like any business," West said, "We have to make sure the business owner is obeying local ordinances and state law. We must ensure public safety and that our county and municipal resources are adequate to handle the demands placed on them."
During the study, lawmakers heard from county commissioners, a county sheriff, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), a district attorney, a county assessor and others who addressed issues from multiple angles.
Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland said Tuesday's meeting was the result of his asking fellow county commissioners how they were handling certificate of compliance forms from marijuana producers. He then brought the group's concerns to Humphrey and West and asked what could be done to help counties.
He proposed counties be allowed to assist the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) in the regulation of this new and growing industry.
“It is going to take more than the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to regulate the cannabis industry in rural Oklahoma," Cleveland said. "Counties are a vital asset and are closest to the people. We presented the issues that are affecting rural Oklahoma and we presented solutions. There must be revenue share from cannabis taxes to sheriffs' offices and counties to assist the state as it pertains to cannabis grow facilities. Cooperative regulatory authority will promote good and fair trade practices in the cannabis industry.”
Haskell County Sheriff Tim Turner described monitoring the commercial grow facilities and the workers that come with them in the 575 square miles in his county, which includes 85 shore miles of Lake Eufaula and the Robert S. Kerr Reservoir. He said only about 15% of the facilities are owned by Haskell County residents. The rest are from out of state or even from out of the country.
He said his department recently worked with Colorado to indict the first Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act case out of Colorado where the two main defendants had set up shop in Haskell County with a grow of over 10,000 plants. One of the main defendants was here illegally from China.
Turner said his county's population has grown by 7,000 to 10,000 people, and that is manned by 10 deputies, himself and an undersheriff. He said his office has started working with DEQ after receiving a DEQ grant. To compound the problem, however, many of the grows are hidden in forests or behind heavy brush, operating illegally.
He said this poses a public safety issue.
"A lot of times when you go to these residences, or our assessor and her staff goes to these residences, they're faced with people with firearms," Turner said.
Cleveland County Assessor Doug Warr talked about safety issues as well.
He said many grow facilities refuse entrance to his assessor staff. When they are allowed entry they're often followed by armed workers. That makes it difficult for them to properly assess property, he said. That means municipalities, counties and the state may not be getting proper tax payments from these facilities.
“State Question 788 drastically changed the landscape for all 77 county assessors across Oklahoma," Warr said. "Assessing and evaluating medical marijuana properties are extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous. The counties would welcome help from the Legislature to help mitigate this issue.”
He showed study participants photos of a church that is now a dispensary next to some land owned by a private school that is now a growing/processing facility. He also showed photos of a commercial building in downtown Moore and a mobile home that have been turned into grow facilities. Telltale signs are boarded up windows, no signage and extra heating and air units.
Warr said marijuana growers are buying up every available building or parcel of land they can and paying cash up front. This is affecting the commercial and residential real estate market with traditional buyers being outbid.
These were just a few of the problems explained at Tuesday's meeting.
Brandon Bowman, programs director with the Oklahoma Rural Water Association, described communities where residents are left without water because of the strain caused by new grow facilities. He said some operators even fail to put in proper sanitation systems, so their fields are running with open sewage. He questioned the point when the state's supply of drinking water will be challenged.
Bowman said some communities are grateful for the extra revenue brought in by marijuana producers. Others are up in arms.
Marshall County Commissioner Josh Cantrell described the burden on electric utilities saying in his area they've literally had power lines melt off the poles because of over-usage by improperly installed equipment.
Teresa Tosh, Tulsa County inspections director, said her county has been able to solve many of these problems because they don't issue permits until they've checked that facilities have appropriate access to water, fire services, utilities and more. They also charge fees for the permits they issue. Last year, they collected $400,000 above budget that was returned to the county general fund, she said.
She agreed that sometimes people try to skirt the permit process, but said they always find them. Tosh said counties need to be consistent in their approach and they need to ensure the safety of the buildings going up or being converted into grow operations for the protection of the workers.
Turner said the situation is out of control and the funding for county government is gone.
"As medical marijuana is here, county sheriffs staff and resources are being stretched razor thin," Turner said. "State officials didn’t hear any state agencies report direct funding to the counties or local law enforcement to help with this issue. It's time that policymakers step up and help fund law enforcement so we can continue to provide safety for our communities."
Barrett Brown, deputy director of OMMA, said the authority is working hard to address many of the issues brought forward in Tuesday's study. The authority is under new leadership, and many changes are underway. Staffing is priority one right now, he said. They've recently added 24 compliance inspectors and they hope to hit 60 by year's end. They would need more than 100 to inspect all medical marijuana businesses twice each year, he said.
OMMA also is adding new attorneys, paralegals and support staff to handle the implementation of House Bill 2646, passed last legislative session. The bill touches on practically every aspect of Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry.
Brown said OMMA also is working to add more communications' staff to better work with municipalities and counties. They're hoping to build better relationships also with industry professionals and other stakeholders and to provide more education to the public.