Oklahoma’s Green Rush Is Even Wilder Than You Imagine

Published on April 1, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
the word 'Oklahoma' with a bison above it, and a pot leaf over the second "O" against a yellow backdrop

Bill Ladd, a patient at Fort Apache Medical Dispensary, shows off one of his legal homegrow plants. (Dave Howard for Leafly)

Welcome to Boomtown, USA

GLENPOOL, OK—Seconds after I send a text that I’ve arrived at Sage Farms, a 10-foot-high chain-link gate guarding the entrance slides open by remote command. Beyond the barbed-wire-topped fencing, a dirt drive bends to the right, beyond my sightline. In a different era, these security measures would have represented a transparent attempt to mitigate the risks of a major marijuana-growing operation. Especially here.

I’m a few miles outside Glenpool, OK, a half-hour south of Tulsa, more or less in the dead center of a state that Donald Trump carried by more than 36 percentage points. I just passed a sign advertising classes to help obtain open-carry handgun permits.

'You literally cannot drive a block without seeing a dispensary. It’s like the Land Run all over again.'

But these are unusual times in Oklahoma. Greeting me in the parking lot is Ben Neal, the farm’s 30-something owner, wearing a baseball cap and looking entirely unbothered by the prospect of a stranger traipsing around his greenhouses. My rental Jeep ends up next to delivery trucks adorned with giant tomatoes, cabbage, and other produce, part of a business that had been Neal’s main focus until last summer, when his life—and that of countless other Oklahomans—changed in a blink.

Sitting in his office, Neal explains how he got here. He and his father ran an airplane-parts manufacturing business until they were bought out in 2014. Offered the chance for a career reset, he chose hydroponic farming. He filled five greenhouses with tomatoes, lettuce, and other leafy greens. Then he heard about the looming vote on medical marijuana set for June 26 last year.

“At first,” he recalls, “I wasn’t really sure.”

For good reason. Oklahoma in 2018 had the highest incarceration rate in the country. Drug possession was the state’s most common felony offense. As the bright brass buckle on the Bible Belt, the state had been the last in the union to do away with alcohol prohibition.

There was no way to know what was coming.

Wait, in Oklahoma? Really?

The first indication that Oklahomans were up for a massive pivot was last May, when Sage ran a Facebook poll; of the 6,000 people who responded, 96% indicated they were in favor. “Even being skewed,” Neal says, “I was like, I think this really has some legs to it.”

On June 26, when State Question 788 passed with a resounding 57% of the vote, he watched the results on TV in a Denver hotel room. Neal and his wife were dropping their kids off at camp, and they extended the trip to visit a few dispensaries and make some inquiries. Over the next few months, he devoured books and YouTube videos on the intricacies of growing cannabis.

Ben Neal, owner of Sage Farms, ripped out tomato and kale plants to grow medical cannabis in his greenhouses south of Tulsa. (Dave Howard for Leafly)

Neal was wise to act swiftly—because Oklahoma’s initiative was crafted to move like a tornado across the plains. The authors of Question 788 had seen other legalization initiatives get mired in bureaucratic quicksand: State legislators tended to dilute the original language, and some governors slow-walked the will of the people. In Oklahoma, medical legalization was born with sharp teeth. The law took effect in 30 days. Regulation was downright ephemeral. Neal considered spending $10,000 on a Colorado consultant to help navigate the licensing process until he saw the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority’s (OMMA) required paperwork: It was a one-page form.

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By September, scarcely more than two months after, medical legalization passed, Neal had received his commercial grow license. The day after the law permitted him to possess seedlings, he began ripping out tomatoes and kale and planting cannabis.

He knew he would have competition. What he didn’t expect was just how crazy things would get—or how quickly they would get that way.

Oklahoma’s ‘Boomer’ Mentality

Oklahoma has been known to plunge into new pursuits with a certain fervor.

The town of Glenpool, for example, is home to Black Gold Park—the name a reminder of the state’s historic penchant for plunging headlong into compelling new resource-based business ventures. In 1907, the year it became a state, Oklahoma produced the most oil of any territory in the country.

The numbers are stunning. Oklahoma is approving 10,000 new patients every month.

During the Oklahoma Land Run, entire cities of 10,000 people were established in a day. The University of Oklahoma Sooners got their name from the term for land rush settlers (“boomers”) who jumped the gun (“sooners”). But the bootstrap opportunism of the present-day medical cannabis rush is unlike anything in recent memory.

Start with the numbers. As of March 11, the OMMA had approved 63,647 patient licenses—an average of more than 10,000 a month, or more than 300 a day. The board had also issued licenses for 412 caregivers, 1,109 dispensaries, 1,972 growers, and 553 processors.

Those are stupefying numbers, but don’t misread them. They don’t mean, for example, that more than 1,100 dispensaries are currently open. Yet. But there are plenty of all of the above—to the point that there’s almost a kind of sad-trombone comedy to the frenzied rush to get in on the cannabis gold rush. Witness the two dispensaries in Tulsa that opened so close to each other that they essentially share a parking lot.

“You literally cannot drive a block without seeing one,” says Robert Gifford, an Oklahoma City-based attorney and former federal prosecutor who advises entrepreneurs opening medical cannabis businesses. “It’s like the Land Run all over again.”

Gifford says that since he’s put word out that he is advising businesses on cannabis regulations, he’s been stampeded. “I get a phone call every single day from someone wanting to get in the business,” he says.

Stocking up: Project Releaf, a dispensary next to the old Penn Theater in downtown Oklahoma City. (Courtesy Project Releaf)

‘Kicking the Door Down’

My first day in Oklahoma City, I drove over to Lucky’s Grow Supply, one of the many businesses that have sprung to life in the past few months. Co-owners John Degerness and Ted Hans were a bit weary from having scouted a new location a couple of hours’ drive away that day, but they were buoyant nonetheless.

'Oklahoma has been such an oppressed state in so many aspects that to have them kick the door down on this is incredible.'

“Oklahoma has been such an oppressed state in so many aspects that to have them kick the door down on this is incredible,” said Degerness, a middle-aged man who wore a green T-shirt bearing his company’s logo, complete with a shamrock. “It’s like we’ve all been in this large, dark room, not knowing each other was there or who each other was. Now someone has turned the light switch on, and we all see it’s our neighbors, and general practitioners, and the lady who holds the crosswalk sign outside of the school, and on down the line.”

Lucky’s fosters a community vibe. There are lamps and fertilizers, but the business also hosts physicians to help patients get licensed and holds growing clinics. Degerness and his partner, Ted Hans, turned one wall into a cannabis-inspired art gallery. A sign on a display shelf says, simply, “Sorry, we’re high.”

There is a certain giddiness to this newly formed tribe—a sense that, after having to whisper furtively for their entire lives, they can now dilate on the merits of cannabis from atop a soapbox. Hans recalled that one of his recent customers was a white-haired woman, a former high school English teacher in her 60s, who was on the hunt for growing tools. “She just looked at me and said, ‘What a time to be alive—Oklahoma in 2019,’” Hans said. “And she had this huge smile on her face.”

In addition to his traditional greenhouses, grower Ben Neal is trying out these vertical grow planters. (Dave Howard for Leafly)

First Rule: There Is No First Rule

Part of the sense of free-floating disbelief might have to do with the strikingly liberal aspects of the new law. If you’re a patient, you need a recommendation from a doctor licensed to prescribe cannabis—but there is no list of qualifying conditions. If your doctor believes you can benefit from medical cannabis, no matter what the condition, they can write up a recommendation.

Possession limits: 3 ounces of flower, 6 mature plants, 1 ounce of concentrate, 72 ounces of edibles, and 8 ounces of flower back at home.

The new program is unusually generous in what it allows patients to purchase and grow. Permit holders can possess three ounces of marijuana on their person; six mature marijuana plants, six seedling plants, one ounce of concentrated marijuana, 72 ounces of edible marijuana, and—deep breath—up to eight ounces of marijuana in their residence. As one concerned elected official put it, “Snoop Dogg can’t smoke or eat or take that much marijuana in a 30-day supply.”

Growers can raise and harvest as many plants as they choose. The new program was, as Degerness put it, “a broad stroke.”

The grow-supply business owners feel they are perfectly positioned to ride the wave forward. “There are not many questions I can answer where I feel like I’m 100% on the right side of history,” Hans said. “But I feel like I am with this.”

Very cool: Inside the entrance to Chill, a dispensary on NE 10th St. in OKC. (Courtesy of Chill Dispensary)

Even the Cops Are Cashing In

One striking reality about Oklahoma’s headlong plunge is that the new medical marijuana law touches almost every aspect of society. The legal community is preoccupied with helping a glut of businesspeople navigate sometimes contradictory regulations and federal statutes. Agriculture and land use are in flux. The banking industry is puzzling through the Gordian knot of how to serve a booming industry with which it’s legally restricted from commingling. There are insurance questions.

One cannabis lab owner left her job at the State Bureau of Investigation to jump into the booming industry.

As for law enforcement? On the last night of my visit, I went to Oklahoma Grown: A Night of Infused Cuisine, a networking dinner in Oklahoma City’s hip Plaza District held ahead of that weekend’s Green Grow Expo. No one seemed particularly angsty about eating THC-infused ranch dressing without a medical license. Hipsters and cowboy-looking guys and well-dressed businesspeople hunkered around a fire pit, balancing plates loaded with chicken and waffles drizzled with full-spectrum honey.

Sales rep Melissa Griffin was handing out business cards for Express Toxicology Services in nearby Edmond. Her boss has a classic Oklahoma green-rush story: She left a job at the State Bureau of Investigation, where she worked in a lab testing controlled substances, to leap into a business that offers similar services to the medical marijuana industry—testing plants and oils and so forth to ensure they are as represented. Express Toxicology Services had been so eager to ride the cresting wave, the owners threw open the doors in mid-December only to realize they weren’t actually ready for business. They quickly closed up and restarted the operation a month later.

Most everyone sees this sense of openness as a good thing for Oklahoma. “With any business, when there’s not a lot of restrictions, there’s a lot of creativity that comes into it,” says attorney Gifford. “That’s where you get the Bill Gates of the world.”

The crew from Green and Clean Gourmet Chefs gravies up the chicken and waffles at ‘Oklahoma Grown: A Night of Infused Cuisine,’ a networking dinner in Oklahoma City’s hip Plaza District. (Dave Howard for Leafly)

Access for All

The medical industry might be one of the biggest potential beneficiaries. Take, for example, Brandon Bailey, a 36-year-old physician in Broken Arrow. He spent time in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard and was a collegiate wrestler who now trains in mixed martial arts. Bailey returned home from his overseas service and immediately confronted a major headache: The government had defaulted on his student loans. As he was tackling that issue, an advocate friend convinced him to consider medical marijuana.

Bailey was initially opposed to it, having grown up in a house where a family member was a dealer. “I had a personal thing against all drug use for years,” says Bailey, who is wiry and square-jawed and wears his hair sheared close to his scalp.

'I had a personal thing against all drug use for years,' says Brandon Bailey. A friend's MMJ experience changed his mind. Now he serves 100 patients a day at Evolved Health & Wellness.

But then a veteran friend with a traumatic brain injury bottomed out, losing his home and family and attempting suicide. Cannabis stabilized his life and allowed him to avoid the harsh side effects of a drug regimen that Veterans Affairs doctors had prescribed.

Bailey, who didn’t even have a receptionist last summer, decided it was worth a try. He hired a manager, launched Evolved Health & Wellness, and began evaluating patients for medical marijuana prescriptions late last summer.

How has that worked out? Bailey now employs 11 people and sees between 65 and 100 patients a day. In April, the practice will move from a 5,000-square-foot location on a side road behind an AAA Insurance business into a 26,000-square-foot facility with visibility on a main road. (The practice offers other wellness services, including testosterone replacement therapy, Botox treatment, and a hyperbaric chamber.) Evolved hoodies are available for purchase in the reception area.

Bailey also does outreach when time permits, traveling to the remotest parts of Oklahoma to reach patients who are unable to travel or who can’t afford fees that locals doctors charge. They can run as high as $250 a person, Bailey says. He charges $125, and $80 for veterans.

“The biggest thing,” he says, “is access.”

Once people realize what cannabis is capable of helping with, the service sells itself.

Great shop. Can it last? The owners of Fort Apache Medical Dispensary in Tulsa opened in early 2019. But so did a lot of other competitors. (Courtesy of Fort Apache)

The Looming Shakeout

Inevitably, not all pioneers will survive. If you’re first onto a new frontier, you run a greater risk of falling off a cliff or getting attacked by a bear or trampled by buffalo. That’s very much on the mind of Michael Almohandis and Elaine Cooper, who opened Fort Apache Medical Dispensary in Tulsa on January 10.

At 64, Almohandis had worked construction for 45 years and wanted less physically taxing work. He was considering opening a Sprint PCS franchise, but Cooper, his fiancée, talked him into Fort Apache. “There was a lot to learn,” he says. “I started last fall, and gave up Netflix just to read about it.”

This is the Bible Belt, and the owner of Tulsa's Fort Apache Medical Dispensary likes to quote Psalms 104:14: 'He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.'

He wasn’t particularly convinced that marijuana had the palliative powers that are attributed to it, but he figured the idea made sense as a business. Then, he said, one customer came in with a walker, bought some vape cartridges, and strolled in a couple of weeks later without assistance. “He swears by it,” Almohandis says, sitting in his reception area across from adjoining display counters. “That convinced me that we’re on the right side of this.”

He also points out that their mission is codified in Psalms 104:14: “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.”

They’re fully at peace with their mission, but Almohandis and Cooper are worried about the glut of competition. They’ve recently heard rumors Tulsa alone was now home to 134 dispensaries. Their first couple of weeks were slow. Then Cooper upped their presence on social media. That helped. But since then, their foot traffic has leveled off, and they’re pricing their products hyper-competitively. During my visit, their special was three joints for $20. On the other end, because of the requirement that all products come from Oklahoma, a single seed costs $10. “It’s all the growers and processors that control the prices,” Cooper explained.

Dispensaries can buy from either in-state growers or processors licensed by the state of Oklahoma. (They can grow their own, but must obtain a license to do so.) The cannabis must be tested, and dispensaries require a copy of test results from the source before making a purchase.

For now, they’re committed and hoping for the best. “You can see we’re not that busy,” Almohandis says, “but we’re trying to build relationships with customers.”

They’re delicious, but heed the advice given by patients who’ve gone down that road: Start low, go slow. (Dave Howard for Leafly)

How Long Can It Last?

These questions of sustainability hover menacingly over everyone, including the early entrants, like Ben Neal of Sage Farms. In late February, when I visited, the transformation of his hydroponic operation was nearly complete. “We literally pulled out our last heads of lettuce last week,” he told me.

By mid-March, Sage Farms had about 5,000 cannabis plants across his six greenhouses. The company’s newest structure contains state-of-the-art lighting; the others are being retrofitted to grow plants vertically, in hydroponic style.

Neal concedes that this is an experiment. He says he’s never seen another vertical cannabis operation, and he made the plastic pieces for it using injection molding, reaching back to his manufacturing background. People told him the plants wouldn’t grow that way, but in the back row of one greenhouse, several dozen plants now emerge, genie-like, from the columns. He’s considering franchising the system if it’s as successful as he hopes it will be.

He knows there will be intense competition. “It’s going to be very cutthroat,” he says.

But as a native Oklahoman, Neal is heartened—and, even months later, still kind of floored—by the barrel-chested embrace of State Question 788, and the nearly cosmic changes that it has swept in over the previous six or so months. He says he passes four dispensaries on his short commute. “I have not heard hardly any negative feedback on cannabis—from our produce customers to anyone I meet on the street. My in-laws that are 78 years old, all their friends are really excited about it. They want to try it.”

“People I never met are coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, hey, I saw you guys are producing these tinctures now. How do I get some of those?’”

As it turns out, Neal knows a place or two to send them.

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Dave Howard
Dave Howard
Dave Howard is a national magazine editor and award-winning author. His most recent book is Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents With the World's Most Charming Con Man.
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