How Cowboy Country Became the Nation’s Hottest Weed Market
One day in the early fall of 2018, while scrutinizing the finances of his thriving Colorado garden supply business, Chip Baker noticed a curious development: transportation costs had spiked fivefold. The surge, he quickly determined, was due to huge shipments of cultivation supplies—potting soil, grow lights, dehumidifiers, fertilizer, water filters—to Oklahoma.
Baker, who has been growing weed since he was 13 in Georgia, has cultivated crops in some of the world’s most notorious marijuana hotspots, from the forests of Northern California’s Emerald Triangle to the lake region of Switzerland to the mountains of Colorado. Oklahoma was not exactly on his radar. So one weekend in October, Baker and his wife Jessica decided to take a drive to see where all their products were ending up.
Voters in the staunchly conservative state had just four months earlier authorized a medical marijuana program and sales were just beginning. The Bakers immediately saw the potential for the fledgling market. With no limits on marijuana business licenses, scant restrictions on who can obtain a medical card, and cheap land, energy and building materials, they believed Oklahoma could become a free-market weed utopia and they wanted in.
Within two weeks, they found a house to rent in Broken Bow and by February had secured a lease on an empty Oklahoma City strip mall. Eventually they purchased a 110-acre plot of land down a red dirt road about 40 miles northeast of Oklahoma City that had previously been a breeding ground for fighting cocks and started growing high-grade strains of cannabis with names like Purple Punch, Cookies and Cream and Miracle Alien.
“This is exactly like Humboldt County was in the late 90s,” Baker says, as a trio of workers chop down marijuana plants that survived a recent ice storm. “The effect this is going to have on the cannabis nation is going to be incredible.”
Oklahoma is now the biggest medical marijuana market in the country on a per capita basis. More than 360,000 Oklahomans—nearly 10 percent of the state’s population—have acquired medical marijuana cards over the last two years. By comparison, New Mexico has the country’s second most popular program, with about 5 percent of state residents obtaining medical cards. Last month, sales since 2018 surpassed $1 billion.
To meet that demand, Oklahoma has more than 9,000 licensed marijuana businesses, including nearly 2,000 dispensaries and almost 6,000 grow operations. In comparison, Colorado—the country’s oldest recreational marijuana market, with a population almost 50 percent larger than Oklahoma—has barely half as many licensed dispensaries and less than 20 percent as many grow operations. In Ardmore, a town of 25,000 in the oil patch near the Texas border, there are 36 licensed dispensaries—roughly one for every 700 residents. In neighboring Wilson (pop. 1,695), state officials have issued 32 cultivation licenses, meaning about one out of 50 residents can legally grow weed.
What is happening in Oklahoma is almost unprecedented among the 35 states that have legalized marijuana in some form since California voters backed medical marijuana in 1996. Not only has the growth of its market outstripped other more established state programs but it is happening in a state that has long stood out for its opposition to drug use. Oklahoma imprisons more people on a per-capita basis than just about any other state in the country, many of them non-violent drug offenders sentenced to lengthy terms behind bars. But that state-sanctioned punitive streak has been overwhelmed by two other strands of American culture—a live-and-let-live attitude about drug use and an equally powerful preference for laissez-faire capitalism.
“Turns out rednecks love to smoke weed,” Baker laughs. “That’s the thing about cannabis: It really bridges socio-economic gaps. The only other thing that does it is handguns. All types of people are into firearms. All types of people are into cannabis.”
Indeed, Oklahoma has established arguably the only free-market marijuana industry in the country. Unlike almost every other state, there are no limits on how many business licenses can be issued and cities can’t ban marijuana businesses from operating within their borders. In addition, the cost of entry is far lower than in most states: a license costs just $2,500. In other words, anyone with a credit card and a dream can take a crack at becoming a marijuana millionaire.
“They’ve literally done what no other state has done: free-enterprise system, open market, wild wild west,” says Tom Spanier, who opened Tegridy Market (a dispensary that takes its name from South Park) with his wife in Oklahoma City last year. “It’s survival of the fittest.”
The hands-off model extends to patients, as well. There’s no set of qualifying conditions in order to obtain a medical card. If a patient can persuade a doctor that he needs to smoke weed in order to soothe a stubbed toe, that’s just as legitimate as a dying cancer patient seeking to mitigate pain. The cards are so easy to obtain—$60 and a five-minute consultation—that many consider Oklahoma to have a de facto recreational use program.
But lax as it might seem, Oklahoma’s program has generated a hefty amount of tax revenue while avoiding some of the pitfalls of more intensely regulated programs. Through the first 10 months of this year, the industry generated more than $105 million in state and local taxes. That’s more than the $73 million expected to be produced by the state lottery this fiscal year, though still a pittance in comparison to the overall state budget of nearly $8 billion. In addition, Oklahoma has largely escaped the biggest problems that have plagued many other state markets: Illegal sales are relatively rare and the low cost to entry has made corruption all but unnecessary.
All of which has made Oklahoma an unlikely case study for the rest of the country, which continues its incremental march toward universal legalization. Oklahoma is struggling with the sudden growing pains common to all booms. As pretty much everyone acknowledges, the market simply can’t sustain the number of businesses currently operating. Meanwhile, state regulators are trying to introduce a seed-to-sale tracking system that many say is necessary to avert a public health disaster without cutting off the flow of tax revenue that they have come to rely on in lean budget times.
“This is a perfect test in front of the world,” says Norma Sapp, who has been waging an often lonely campaign for marijuana legalization in Oklahoma for more than three decades. “How will this shake out?”
“Turns out rednecks love to smoke weed. That’s the thing about cannabis: It really bridges socio-economic gaps.”
But despite the opposition of practically every election official and institution in the state, there was already mounting evidence that Oklahomans were turning against the harsh drug penalties that had been a hallmark of its criminal justice system for decades. In 2016, voters had overwhelmingly passed a separate ballot question making drug possession crimes a misdemeanor instead of a felony, a major de-escalation of the war on drugs. In addition, Oklahoma was deep in the grips of the opioid addiction crisis and many people were desperate for alternative approaches to treating pain.
Not all of the 9,000 Oklahoma businesses that have obtained marijuana licenses have found their niche. In fact, many of them likely aren’t even operational: Just because someone plopped down $2,500 for a business license doesn’t mean they ever managed to open their doors. In addition, many existing businesses are struggling to make ends meet in a saturated market. Observers expect a major shakeout in the coming months, with many businesses failing or selling out to competitors.
“Everyone and their dog has some kind of marijuana license,” says Chip Paul, the libertarian legalization advocate. “You have just a stupid amount of grow licenses and process licenses.”