by Tim Landes
For nearly three decades Norma Sapp has worked to educate Oklahomans on marijuana, and has been a key member in getting laws like State Question 788 passed. In this interview, the state director for NORML discusses her work, the passage of 788, her thoughts on the upcoming governor’s race and where Oklahoma is headed in the marijuana industry.
Landes: How did you get involved in marijuana activism?
Sapp: In 1989, a friend of mine found a report on hemp and all the things you can do with it. It gave all the citations for looking it up for historical matters. I had moved to a rural area and ate at a cafe where all the farmers go for breakfast in the mornings. I thought all I have to do is tell all the farmers about this plant and we can change the world. I still believe that. Especially in Oklahoma where we’re perfectly situated to be the best place to grow hemp in the United States. After that I paid for their breakfast in exchange to watch a video made by the government to encourage farmers to grow hemp. It didn’t go anywhere from there. I then started learning more about the cannabis and criminal justice. For nine years I was on a committee that was bringing light to the Oklahoma County Jail. Every Monday we’d go to the Oklahoma County Commissioner’s meeting and tell them what info we had gathered on the prisoners there and how they were being treated. There was a lot of deaths. There still is. It was one central rabbit hole with many, many channels that are affected by the drug war. After that I spent over a decade going to national conferences to learn how to be more effective.
Landes: How long have you been director of NORML Oklahoma?
Sapp: 1996 was when Michael Pearson ran for office twice and lost and then became county commissioner for Logan County. He handed it over to me when he departed. NORML is for those looking to connect to some kind of cannabis reform. It’s been around a long time. I stopped having meetings about eight years ago when Facebook became popular. It became easier to pass information along. We no longer had to travel across the state for meetings and we could sit at our computers at home. The page is Oklahoma NORML, but most people gravitate toward my personal page, so that has more activity.
Landes: Let’s talk about the big year for marijuana in Oklahoma. It’s long been said, we’d be one of the last states to legalize it in any way, but here we are. What do you think turned the tide for people being in favor of medicinal marijuana?
Sapp: We saw it at the ballot box in 2016 when we voted on 780 and 781. Immediately one of the house members said we didn’t know what we were voting on. In my opinion we did! We know that we have way overcrowded prisons. Treatment and mental health can be done for 1/6th of the cost of incarceration. We could send two kids to college for the cost on one inmate. It’s economically dumb.
Representative Jon Echols spent two years educating legislators, which became the bill known as Katie’s Law. It was modeled for his niece, who has Dravet syndrome (myoclonic epilepsy). Then autism came into play. Did you know that one in 49 people now have some sort of autism? These things are devastating to our economy, our healthcare system, and the parents. It became a law, but still couldn’t get off the ground because, in my opinion, people didn’t understand it. Then the next year the law was modified to change the definition of cannabis to try to help people understand. It took a lot of work from people like the owners of vape shops working with many agencies to get it right. Once people tried CBD they realized miracles are happening. When we got a chance to vote on medical marijuana there were so many of us that witnessed the benefits of CBD. We made a huge effort for five years getting people registered to vote and understanding how cannabis works. With Facebook we’ve been able to teach people how to register to vote, how to follow a bill, get it introduced and how to contact and stay in touch with legislators. We are teaching a lot of people how this process works and how to get involved.
Landes: There was the big victory on 788, but right on the heels of that came the 797 debacle with the shortage of signatures after boasting there were enough. Was that discouraging coming off that win?
Sapp: Many don’t know this, but things like 788 are done grassroots only. The way that we did was the original packets were printed and then Green the Vote would make copies. We the People did it that way with 788 and 797. State question 788 was a constitutional amendment, which meant there was a higher threshold. We knew after November there would be an even higher threshold. The threshold has been the lowest it’s been in several years, so Isaac Caviness with Green the Vote wanted to take advantage of that. We really didn’t see 797 getting anywhere. We didn’t think Oklahoma was ready for recreational right on the heels of medical. It was a club to hold over the legislature. We knew it would be over their heads and if they missed with 788, we still had 797. That was the plan. I didn’t really like either one of the bills. Both were so hastily done with not enough from lawyers. There were several issues, but we used it as a club. We worked our asses off to get it passed.
Landes: Have you seen more Republican lawmakers coming around on this issue?
Sapp: Yes! Senator Echols pitches this in the liberty dynamic. It’s freedom, it’s liberty, it’s less government. It’s the platform of the Republican party.
Landes: We have a big governor election about to happen. Is there one candidate better than the other when it comes to marijuana?
Sapp: Neither candidate in the red and blue are on the cannabis side. Drew Edmondson was very anti-cannabis until it passed, then we got the standard line…”it’s what the people want.” We need somebody who actually knows the science and the industry. He has none of those qualifications. The only person who does is Chris Powell.
Landes: Are you concerned at all about the possibility of a Kevin Stitt governorship?
Sapp: I’m somewhat concerned. This is hard thing to choose between. He’s not a politician, which I think would be a good idea, but he’s also not a politician so he doesn’t understand the game. You do have to know the game. I don’t like that you have to know the game or that there even is a game. I ran for House in 1996 and before it was over I realized I didn’t want that job. I’d have to compromise what I truly want and believe to gain the support. I won’t play those kind of games.
Landes: What do you see in the next five years for marijuana in Oklahoma?
Sapp: This is such an exciting time. The hemp cannabis is going to come in play for jobs, jobs, jobs. Oklahoma is so perfectly positioned for this. We can make homes using hemp strong enough to withstand some tornadoes. The concrete is 1/6 the weight of regular concrete and it doesn’t degrade in water. This stuff will last hundreds of years. We also see a lot of good paying jobs in the cannabis industry. We’re going to grow this state from the ground up, literally.
For those seeking more information on NORML Oklahoma, or how to get involved with other initiatives can contact Norma Sapp through her Facebook page.