Legal Weed Just Took a Rare Loss in This Red State

Oklahoma just voted against legalizing weed, a rare loss for a movement that’s made enormous strides over the past decade.

Every county in Oklahoma voted against legalizing recreational cannabis for people over the age of 21 Tuesday, a rare loss for a legalization movement that’s made enormous strides over the past decade.

More than 60 percent of Oklahoma voters cast a ballot Tuesday against Question 820, which was opposed by every statewide elected official in the Republican-dominated state. 


Fewer than 565,000 Oklahomans voted Tuesday, less than half of those who cast a ballot in last year’s gubernatorial election. Activists had pushed for the referendum to be held simultaneously with the 2022 midterms, but signature verification delayed the certification of the election, placing the vote in the winter of an off-year where it was the only item on the ballot in most Oklahoma precincts. 

Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum legalizing medical weed in 2018, but supporters of the “no’”campaign criticized the implementation of medical cannabis, an industry which has exploded in Oklahoma in the years since. The state has nearly three times as many dispensaries and almost as many growing operations as California, according to HuffPost

In November, a man who’d apparently invested $300,000 in a grow operation in rural Kingfisher County, near the town of Hennessey, opened fire at the farm and killed four employees. All of the victims were Chinese nationals, as is the shooter, who has since been charged with first-degree murder


Though the medical cannabis referendum made it dramatically easier to access legal weed in Oklahoma, harsh penalties remain for people without medical cards—up to a year in prison and a fine of $1,000 for simple possession, according to legalization advocacy group NORML. Republican state legislators have also filed bills this year to tighten regulations on medical cannabis, including one that would ban dispensaries and commercial grow operations from operating within 1,000 feet of a church

Though more liberal and Democratic-run states tend to be more likely to have legal cannabis, several high-profile victories have occurred in purple or even red states in recent years. Last year, legal weed easily passed in Missouri on the same ballot where the state’s voters elected Republican Eric Schmitt to the Senate by double-digits. Both Arizona and Montana also legalized weed via referendums in 2020. 

By the same token, voters in both Dakotas and Arkansas rejected legal weed in 2022, albeit with much narrower margins than Oklahoma’s Tuesday. 

Legalization advocates in Oklahoma said Tuesday that while the loss was a setback, they still believe legal weed will eventually come to Oklahoma. 

“This is just a matter of when change is coming,” Michelle Tilley, who managed the ‘yes’ campaign, told Oklahoma NPR station KOSU Tuesday night. “I'm proud of what we've done here because it has started a serious conversation about the injustices of the way that our policies are right now in the state.”

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