OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — With its unlimited growth, some call Oklahoma's medical marijuana industry the 'Wild West of Weed.'
In a free market with few regulations, Oklahoma's medical marijuana industry grew rapidly in the three years since voters approved it.
"A lot of it was just the way this industry was set up," said Adria Berry, the executive director of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. "No one was quite ready for it."
Berry told 2 News Oklahoma when she took office; she inherited a small staff doing a tremendous job. OMMA employed barely 100 people on staff charged with processing license applications from patients, caregivers, growers, producers, dispensaries, and more.
As the fourth executive director in three years at the OMMA, the Tulsa native and University of Tulsa Law School graduate is managing the fledgling industry. Indeed, applications are still pouring in from entrepreneurs who see an opportunity in supplying the more than 381,000 patients now licensed to buy medical marijuana.
"There was no language in that state question about any type of cap on licenses. They left it completely unlimited, which created a very free-market approach to the medical marijuana industry, and that's what we're seeing in Oklahoma right now," according to Berry.
Inspections are a critical part of managing this new industry. The challenge is accomplishing those inspections with the 24 compliance inspectors currently on staff to cover the entire state of Oklahoma. Berry recently hired six more and started their training sessions. She says the goal is to hire 62 authorized inspectors.
"Is 62 going to be enough to manage and cover and inspect all of the businesses that are in 77 counties?" asked Karen Larsen, 2 News Oklahoma journalist.
"I think that that's the exact question that we have to look at and see, you know, as we get to that number of 62," Berry responded. "If it's not enough, we've got to keep going. We've got to keep hiring and keep training folks to get out there."
Yet since they work in pairs, there would still only be 31 teams to inspect 13,000 licensed businesses each year. Berry admitted the math makes it clear it is probably not enough inspection teams. She plans to be flexible and hire as many as needed.
There are so many grow operations in Oklahoma, the drain on water and power resources is also a concern. The Oklahoma Sheriffs' Association, Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, Oklahoma Dairy Producers Association, Oklahoma Agricultural Aviation Association, and Oklahoma Soybean Association recently drafted a letter to the OMMA asking Barry to put a temporary moratorium on grow licenses.
Berry said she understands their concerns. However, "I don't have the statutory authority or constitutional authority to do a moratorium myself, but the legislature has that authority."
Working with the legislature is one of her major goals. Berry recently held a brainstorming session with staff to establish working groups designed to tackle critical issues to manage such industry challenges and concerns. The groups include environmental, business, medical and legislature, etc.
"As you can see, it's broad," Berry stated while standing in front of a large whiteboard in her office. "Everything from environmental to business to medical - all of these are incredibly important, and all of these touch the medical marijuana industry in some way."
Berry is uniquely qualified to bring diverse groups to the table. She recently served as senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma. In addition, she served as policy counsel for Governor Stitt's administration and was the vice president of government affairs for the State Chamber of Oklahoma. Berry plans to utilize her experience and contacts to build stronger relationships with those impacted by the medical marijuana industry.
There is yet another growing concern. Authorities say Oklahoma has now become one of the largest sources for the black market, illegal marijuana. Berry says OMMA is missing one key element to managing the issues better.
"We are the only medical marijuana state that does not have a seed-to-sale tracking system. And so, to me, as soon as we can get that seed-to-sale tracking system online and in use, we will see it, a tremendous change we'll be able to shine a light on the bad actors and shut them down."
Currently, the OMMA's seed-to-sale tracking system is tied up in litigation filed by growers. While waiting for that, plans are underway to hire more staff with law enforcement backgrounds and to work more closely with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and local law enforcement when citizens call with concerns about illegal grow operations in their area.
"We need to actually enforce those rules. I mean, that's priority right now priority number one is getting out and enforcing those rules. That will make it harder for the bad actors to actually survive in this industry in Oklahoma. Get them out of here," she stated emphatically.
With illegal operations to weed out, and legal businesses to inspect for compliance, Berry feels compelled to ensure there is strong oversight for Oklahoma's medical marijuana industry to keep Oklahoma patients safe. To accomplish her goals, she envisions nearly doubling the OMMA staff of call-center representatives, licensing processors, compliance inspectors, legal advisors, and communications team members by the end of 2022.
"Everything we do here, every day, actually impacts Oklahomans, and we get to go home every day, knowing we made a difference." Berry added, "At the end of the day, that all boils down to making sure that patients are safe."
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