MUSKOGEE, OK – Since the doors began opening for legalized marijuana, a number of states have joined the movement. That includes Oklahoma, which has become one of the easier places to grow or sell marijuana.
Perhaps no state has been as radically transformed by the legalization of medical marijuana as Oklahoma. With the number of growers, sellers, and users skyrocketing across the state, it's no surprise it's being called the Wild West of Weed.
This Bible Belt town of 37,000 is now a marijuana Mecca, with the scent drifting downwind and entrepreneurs known as "Big Papa" and "Boss Lady" riding high on the profits. Ron and BeaAnn Epperson put off retirement to run their 24-hour weed dispensary.
"For our terminal patients, we offer this for nothing. There's a lot of people who depend on this medicine," said Ron Epperson, owner of Big Papa's Okie Toke.
It's clear that many other people are counting on it, too, since voters backed medical marijuana in 2018 by a double-digit margin. One out of ten Oklahomans now carries a medical marijuana card, and no qualifying medical condition is required.
"There are doctors right here in Oklahoma and across the world; they'll tell you smoking a joint will solve your problems," claimed BeaAnn Epperson.
Thanks to high demand and low license fees, more than 12,000 businesses have popped up in nearly every Oklahoma county, earning the Sooner State the nickname "Tokelahoma".
This deep-red Republican state has basically turned green, racking up more retail marijuana stores than Colorado, Oregon, and Washington combined, along with more licensed farms than California.
"As soon as the licenses were being issued, businesses were being opened. Everybody was competing for customers," said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.
Oklahoma has 30 times more regulated medical cannabis than is needed to meet the demand of licensed patients. This makes it tough for law enforcement and easier for illicit businesses to hide in plain sight.
According to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (OBN), nearly 75% of Oklahoma's marijuana farms are owned by Chinese nationals, buying up more than a million acres of farmland to grow black-market weed.
"They would advertise on Mandarin websites saying come to Oklahoma, grow marijuana, millions of dollars to be made," said Woodward. Since non-citizens are prohibited from buying or selling land in the state, criminal organizations are paying locals and lawyers to do it for them.
OBN is racing to smoke them out, so far seizing more than 600,000 pounds of product.
Several months ago, agents who descended on a farm a few hours away in Kingfisher County found four Chinese workers killed execution-style.
"It looked like a third-world country, the living conditions, they had shanties built out of plywood, no running water, actually pumping out of a creek to bathe," said Muskogee Sheriff Andy Simmons.
To slow things down, a two-year state moratorium on new licenses is now in effect.
"When we have fentanyl deaths and overdoses, our officers carry Narcan. I really believe that started with marijuana," said Muskogee Police Chief Johnny Teehee.
Since medical marijuana came to town, it's been accompanied by a rise in crime, homelessness, and child neglect cases.
"Marijuana is so commonplace that I would say literally 75% to 80% of the cars we stop have marijuana in them, if not more. It's almost like cigarettes when I was a kid," said a local law enforcement officer.
After years of marijuana momentum, voters have hit the brakes, recently rejecting a plan that would have made Oklahoma the 22nd state to legalize recreational marijuana use.
As Muskogee well knows, this is one crop that forever changes the landscape, for better or worse, in the eye of the beholder.