Oklahoma conservatives’ views on medical marijuana evolving

LINDSAY, Okla. — Danny Daniels, an evangelical Christian in the rural Oklahoma town of Lindsay, is reliably conservative on just about every political issue.

The 45-year-old church pastor is anti-abortion, voted for President Donald Trump and is a member of the National Rifle Association who owns an AR-15 rifle. He also came of age during the 1980s and believed in the anti-drug mantra that labeled marijuana as a dangerous gateway drug.

But his view on marijuana changed as his pastoral work extended into hospice care and he saw patients at the end of their lives benefiting from the use of cannabis.

“Some people said I couldn’t be a pastor and support medical marijuana, but I would say most of the people I know, including the Christians I pastor, are in favour of it,” said Daniels, pastor of Better Life Community Church in downtown Lindsay, a rural agricultural and energy industry town about 50 miles (80.5 kilometres) south of Oklahoma City.

Daniels is among a growing group of traditionally conservative Republican voters in Oklahoma who have shifted their position on the topic. Their support for a medical marijuana measure on Tuesday’s ballot could ensure Oklahoma joins the growing list of states that have legalized some form of pot.

It’s the first medical marijuana state question on a ballot in 2018, and Oklahoma’s vote precedes elections on marijuana legalization later this year in Michigan and Utah. Michigan voters will decide whether to legalize recreational pot while Utah is considering medical marijuana.

Among the reddest states in the country, Oklahoma has for decades embraced a tough-on-crime philosophy that includes harsh penalties for drug crimes that has contributed to the state now leading the nation in the percentage of its population behind bars.

But voters’ attitudes are changing. Two years ago Oklahomans voted to make all drug possession crimes misdemeanours over the objection of law enforcement and prosecutors. When one GOP senator discussed adding exceptions after the public vote, he faced an angry mob at a town-hall meeting.

Oklahoma’s State Question 788, the result of an activist-led signature drive, would allow physicians to approve medical marijuana licenses for people to legally grow, keep and use cannabis. The proposal outlines no qualifying medical conditions to obtain a license, and an opposition group that includes law enforcement, business, political and faith leaders launched a late, half-million-dollar campaign to defeat it, saying it’s too loosely written.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who typically defers from commenting on pending state questions, recently expressed reservations about the question, saying it’s so broadly worded it would essentially allow recreational use of marijuana. If approved, Fallin said she intends to call the Legislature back to a special session so that a statutory framework could be approved to further regulate sale and use.

Bill Shapard, a pollster, said support for medical marijuana has been consistently strong during the five years he’s surveyed likely Oklahoma voters. Not surprisingly, Shapard said young people, Democrats and independents overwhelmingly support it.

But he said about half of self-identified evangelicals, churchgoers and those over 65 also endorse medical cannabis.

“When you can get a large majority of the Democrats and independents and a third to a half of Republicans to support you, you can get anything passed in Oklahoma,” Shapard said.

Joanna Francisco, a longtime Republican voter and self-described evangelical, said the issue of medical cannabis “should appeal to everyone who calls themselves a pro-life conservative.”

“If you’re a conservative, you should also be opposed to the state spending exorbitant amounts of money on prosecutors and law enforcement to keep this medicine out of the hands of people who might need it,” said Francisco, 49, who holds regular Bible studies in her Tulsa home.

At Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 382 in El Reno, a conservative suburb 30 miles (48.3 kilometres) west of Oklahoma City, many of the regulars don’t like the idea of legalizing marijuana, even for medical reasons. But attitudes are changing, said 73-year-old Bill Elkins, a disabled Vietnam veteran who volunteers at the post.

“I’ve got mixed thoughts on that,” said Elkins, a Republican who said his daughter benefited from taking cannabidiol oil, a non-intoxicating form of cannabis, for nerve pain. “Right now I’m on the fence.”

Jack Hodgkinson, 71, a Vietnam veteran and supporter of Trump, said he doesn’t have a problem with the medical use of marijuana and plans to vote for it.

“I’ve never messed with any drugs, marijuana or anything like that,” Hodgkinson said. “But if it helps people who need it, I’m all for it.”

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