by Kayla Johnson
It’s been a struggle to get medical marijuana legalized here in the state. Even as the support for cannabis in Oklahoma has grown louder over the years, the opposition has grown just as staunch and stubborn in their views. These biases, from law enforcement or even our friends and neighbors who are anti-cannabis, have had a crippling effect in the past, especially for businesses like head shops and glass shops, both places that market their products for tobacco or legal herbal supplements. For businesses like The Friendly Market in Norman, which once suffered to the point of being forced to close its original location, legalization in the state not only gives them a boost to their business by being able to sell to cannabis patients but it also gives them much needed protection. It’s a story that gained national attention that many Oklahomans followed closely, as it set a standard of sorts for the rest of the state to gauge from until legalization swept through. For Stephen Holman and the other employees of The Friendly Market, though, it was reality.
In 2015, Holman, along with the Market’s owner, Robert Cox, and two clerks, Cody Franklin and James Walters, were all brought up on legal charges following raids to the store’s original location due to the Norman Police Department’s stance on glass pipes as drug paraphernalia. The Friendly Market, which opened its doors on October 4, 2014, was originally a head shop. “Glass pipes are what drew the attention of the Norman police, definitely,” said Holman,” Anytime a business would open in Norman that would sell glass pipes, the police department would inform them that in their eyes, glass pipes were illegal, as they only had one use and that was for smoking cannabis.” Store owners were told they need to stop selling the pipes immediately, but in some cases, the police conducted undercover investigations into the businesses to shut them down. When another Norman glass shop, McCloudz, was raided by police in April of 2015 for selling glass pipes after being in business for two years, the owner called the police department directly to get clarification on what was going on regarding head shops in Norman. The police and owner of McCloudz strongly disagreed as to whether or not glass pipes were paraphernalia. The police stated that they were, in fact, paraphernalia without a doubt, and the owner was informed that criminal charges could follow if he continued to sell them. Following the discussion with police, the owner made the decision to pull all of the glass off of the shelves. Holman, who was elected to the Norman City Council in 2013, says this is where he entered the picture. “The owner ended up stopping the sale of glass pipes for almost three months, and as you can expect, it had a significant impact on business and sales. Holman was able to arrange a meeting between the owner and the police department. However, after going back and forth for over an hour, they could only agree to disagree, despite Robert Cox having spoken to attorneys before opening his store and having been informed him that it was legal, as he wasn’t selling illegal substances. The police were steadfast in their belief that there was only one use for a glass pipe – cannabis, and it was absolutely considered paraphernalia. As the months went by, Cox was beginning to get desperate and wondered if he would be forced to close the business down. By chance one day, however, Holman read about the case in Oklahoma City involving Ziggy’s Cannabis Co., a well known head shop established throughout the city. The original business owner was caught selling illegal substances, and, while the law was broken in that case, the new owner who purchased the company after the arrest of the original owner had done nothing wrong, a fact overlooked by police that were harassing him despite a lack of wrongdoing. A federal judge sided with the business owner and ordered the police to allow Ziggy’s to conduct their business in peace. Seeing that a judge had taken the side of the shop, it gave Holman and Robert both a glimmer of hope. This silver lining was strengthened even further by another story just a week later out of McAlester where The Funky Munky was raided by police and had their glass pipes and funds seized by police during a raid on suspicion that they were selling synthetic marijuana. Despite the fact that illegal substance were not sold at the business, they threatened criminal charges and essentially filed an asset forfeiture, even though, again, no criminal charges were ever filed. The shop’s owners hired a law firm from McAlester, Wagner and Lynch, and, without even having to go to court, were able to get all of their items and money back from the police by essentially calling their bluff as to whether or not charges would be filed. Holman sent both stories to the owner of The Friendly Market. “We saw that they never had charges filed against them, and so, to us, clearly, it meant that glass pipes were not drug paraphernalia on their own.” According to Holman, the owner of The Friendly Market asked the law firm to hold a public forum of sorts for the community in the store, where the legality of the pipes could be discussed. The lawyer explained exactly what would make them illegal and why the pipes in the store are not. Holman stated that “Cox put the pipes back out on the shelves the next day.” A few weeks later, Holman was offered a position at the Market by Cox, and, after meeting with the city attorney to discuss it, accepted, as the attorney found no legal reason or conflict of interest as to why he could not take the job. Holman’s first day at The Friendly Market was September 8th of 2015, and the police were made aware that Cox had placed the glass pipes back on his shelves in October of that year. By mid-November, officers were conducting their first undercover investigation at The Friendly Market, and even going so far as to survey the store from across the street and photographing those who went in and out of the business. “They were very upset that Robert had defied them.” On December 1, 2015, Holman had opened the store alone and, after an hour of doors opening, the police came in with a search warrant. “The first thing they asked was to get into the cash register. They took all of the money out of the register and my bank bag. They took all the glass pipes, rolling papers, anything they considered to be drug paraphernalia, though, they didn’t take hookahs or wooden pipes.” Criminal charges followed just over a week later – one felony, concealment of illegal funds, and six misdemeanors for the possession of drug paraphernalia filed against both the owner and Holman on December 9. The day after the first raid, at the advice of their attorneys to keep business going as usual, Holman flew to Texas and drove a rental van to two of their distributors to stock up on pipes and supplies. He drove straight back that night, and by morning, the store was restocked. After seeing a newspaper story about The Friendly Market restocking, the police reopened their investigation. On December 20, when no one was answering the phone at the business, Holman drove to the location to find a white paper on the door and police inside questioning the employee inside. Despite two police raids in the same month, business was better than ever and the community was extremely supportive. “It was overwhelming from day one. Everyone thought the police were way out of line.”
Following the second raid, the store owner chose not to restock, but the business remained open to run as normally as possible, though the loss of their product was obviously a blow. In the middle of January 2016, the attorneys for Holman and the owner of The Friendly Market were contacted by the DKT Liberty Project, a nonprofit that has a focus on civil asset forfeitures that base out of Virginia, and they strive to help people defend themselves against the power of the government. “They had seen headlines about the city councilman from Norman who’s opposed to civil asset forfeiture and had his store raided by police, and they wanted to pay for the costs of the defense of this case, which was a huge deal for us and a big blow to the strategy of the police. They’re not used to going up against defendants with unlimited funding.”
After rejecting the plea deal offered by the district attorney, additional charges were filed against Holman and Cox – six more misdemeanors, a second felony against Cox, and one charge each of possession of drug paraphernalia against two clerks, Franklin and Walters. “It seemed extremely vindictive, since it had been three months since the first raid, and within 48 hours of us rejecting their plea deal, they piled on more charges, and even went so far as to try to arrest one of the clerks to hold over the weekend to try and apply pressure to him for information.” The first trial, for Walters, was in October of 2016, and resulted in a mistrial due to a hung jury. “They may have tried him first because, as our youngest employee, they may have thought he would be an easy target, but the jury was 5-1 not guilty, and the judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial. Franklin’s trial followed in February of 2017, with no witnesses submitted by the defense while, as they had with Walters’ trial, the prosecution brought in law enforcement officials, including a DEA agent, to testify as to whether or not the pipes were paraphernalia. Holman says the jury deliberated for only half an hour before finding Franklin not guilty by a vote of 6-0.
“At the time, I was running for re-election for my council seat. The election was February 14, so for Cody to have been found not guilty on the sixth was a really big deal. We’ve got two trials so far with zero convictions, and we really thought surely, now they’re going to drop this because their case doesn’t seem strong enough to get a conviction.” After the votes were counted, Holman won his seat again by 80% of the vote, and a week afterwards, he was voted Best Elected Official by the Norman Transcript Reader’s Choice award. The public and media support was overwhelming but by the end of April, Holman and Cox received word that the District Attorney wanted to go to trial. While their attorneys tried to have the men tried separately, the judge didn’t allow it, and so they moved forward with preparing for a joint trial.
On May 1, 2017, the trial for Holman and Cox began, a full twelve-man jury trial because there were felony charges. It lasted for six days, during which the prosecution presented testimony from law enforcement, and in a move that shocked the District Attorney, the defense brought a water pipe from the Funky Munky in McAlester, to show the jury exactly what they were referring to. Though the jury deliberated past the closing time for the Cleveland County Courthouse, they found Cox and and Holman not guilty 12-0. “When we walked outside, there were a whole bunch of people waiting to see us and congratulate us. It was a great feeling.”
The remaining charges filed from the second raid were dropped June 12, 2017 after an uproar, with people writing to the editor of the paper in support of The Friendly Market. While the liberation of not facing criminal charges was welcome, there was still the issue of their product and the money that had been seized, especially when the DA stated that he was not going to return their property, even though Cox had been forced to close down the business due to the entire ordeal. “He said those pipes ARE drug paraphernalia, regardless of what the jury said, and the law clearly states that they can’t give them back or they’d be aiding and abetting criminal activity, and they will NOT do it unless a court orders them to.” On July 5, 2017, a hearing was held in Cleveland County about returning the property, and ‘lo and behold, it’s determined that Robert Cox is, indeed, the owner of the glass pipes in police possession. “The state’s argument was that they don’t need to prove that it IS paraphernalia since this is a civil case now, we need to prove that it’s NOT if we wants it back.” While the judge overseeing the case was the same one who’d been at the first trial for Walters, he stated that the state supreme court or legislator would have to make the determination as to whether or not it’s paraphernalia. He stated that “his reading of the state law says that when in doubt to return property to the rightful owner, and that, based on the hearing today, there was no evidence that the pipes are paraphernalia, and that he would have to look at each and every item and examine the circumstances to decide if they were or not, so he ordered the property returned.” From that hearing, the district attorney had ten days to file an appeal, and they waited until the very last moment to do so, filing the appeal with the Oklahoma State Supreme Court, and arguing that, because the judge did not make a determination, he was derelict of duty, and so they asked that the Supreme Court to compel the lower courts to make a ruling. “They really stuck by their statement that they needed emergency release to return the property to Cox, or they felt they’d be committing a crime.” After a hearing with the Oklahoma State Supreme Court, they finally got a phone call on September 10th from their attorneys that the Supreme Court had unanimously upheld the lower court ruling and ordered all property be returned to Mr. Cox. “As soon as we heard that order, we were driving around town looking for retail space for rent. We looked everywhere, but we really wanted to open as close to downtown Norman as possible. It took a whole month to get our products back and we spent that month looking for the right space, until finding it here on Porter. Now, we can be a part of the events downtown.” On October 10, 2017, Judge Stice signed the order. Holman and Cox took the order to the police department with their attorneys to load up over twenty boxes, marked “paraphernalia.” Almost 22 months after the original Friendly Market closed down on October 21, 2017, The Friendly Market opened its doors once again. “It was pretty amazing to have gone through all that, and to come out on top with a nicer, new location and more support and publicity than we could have ever paid for,” said Holman,” and to be able to get all of those items back, it was a good feeling. All we wanted was to hold the police accountable and to get our property back to reopen our store and go about our business, being a positive, sales-tax-generating influence on the city that’s locally owned.” Now, in 2019, it’s a new day for the state of Oklahoma. The legal medical cannabis industry is starting to really build up and take off, people are getting access to the medicine that they need, and businesses that follow the law are able to conduct their business in peace, without fear of unwarranted persecution by law enforcement. Like with anything in history, however, it’s important not to forget the trials endured to get somewhere better than we started, and The Friendly Market keeps what they call the State’s Exhibit, where they have framed articles about the trials, and a framed copy of the order to return the pipes to Cox’s possession, along with the items used as evidence against them in trial. “It’s important for us to show what we’ve fought through to get to where we are now.” Holman said, “and it’s a really amazing feeling, to see what they tried to use against us back here in our store.” For those who are curious about The Friendly Market’s offerings, now that the business has established itself as both a dispensary and a head shop, don’t be afraid to come in and say hello. Franklin, one of the clerks who had faced charges, said that this is exactly why they fought to come back. “The whole point of everything we endured was to create a safe place, even if you just want to come hang out.” Do yourself a favor, go hang out and see the wall of victory for yourself.