- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A group of about 50 people who support the use of medical marijuana in Oklahoma rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday for the formal launch of a signature drive to have the issue placed on the November ballot.

The Tulsa-based Oklahomans for Health has until Aug. 16 to gather signatures from more than 155,000 registered Oklahoma voters. If approved, marijuana would be classified as an herbal drug regulated by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, and doctors would be able to prescribe it for a variety of medical conditions.

“We’re excited to get this kicked off,” said Chip Paul, the owner of a Tulsa vapor shop who filed the initiative petition last month.

Despite Oklahoma’s reputation as a conservative state, Paul said he believes more residents are open to the idea of the medicinal uses of the drug and doesn’t like the government infringing on their personal decisions.


“I believe that Oklahomans have a strong sense of personal liberty and personal freedom,” he said.

Oklahoma has some of the strictest drug laws in the country, and simple possession of marijuana can result in felony charges and possible prison time.

State Sen. Connie Johnson, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and a longtime proponent of easing restrictions on marijuana, has tried unsuccessfully for years to advance bills allowing medicinal use or legalization.

“Now we, the people, will rule on what happens in Oklahoma,” Johnson said to cheers from the crowd. “You will have a chance this year to vote on this issue.”

But critics of the proposal said medical marijuana, which is currently legal in more than 20 states, is simply a backdoor attempt to legalize the drug.

“That’s the bigger concern,” said Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. “There’s a very small movement that truly wants it for medical purposes, and there’s a very large group that wants it for recreational use.

“And it sends a terrible message to our kids that smoking pot and getting stoned is health care.”

If approved by voters, medical marijuana would be subject to a 7 percent sales tax with proceeds funding the regulatory office at the Department of Health. Any surplus funds would be split, with 75 percent going to fund education and 25 percent earmarked for drug and alcohol treatment.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy .