It’s hard to believe the residents of Choctaw County, Oklahoma, in just a few short years have innumerable options within a reasonable distance for purchasing perfectly legal medical cannabis. At one time three decades ago now, Hugo, Oklahoma, the county seat of Choctaw, was a major target in the state’s strident war on weed.
Located along the Texas border in the southeast section of the state, Choctaw County today is home to dozens of cannabis business licenses for cultivators, processors, and dispensaries. But 30 years ago during 1989 and 1990, commando-trained and heavily armed drug enforcers executed eradication campaigns throughout an area where cannabis is freely grown today.
One archived Tulsa World story from a September 1990 grow raid describes a typical scene. There were 65 Oklahoma National Guard soldiers who participated with six helicopters, plus three-dozen armed agents from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
But there were no arrests when a Tulsa World reporter was present on the first day of a series of such planned raids that drug enforcers had dubbed “Operation Flashback.”
During sweeps through southeastern Oklahoma, authorities did manage to seize “up to” 4,000 marijuana plants. Officials called the plants “high quality” and claimed they had a street value of $8 million.
As if straight out of a 1990s action-movie thriller, one agent from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs vowed to the media that such grow raids would continue “until we can’t find any more.” A colonel from the Oklahoma National Guard piled on, according to the World:
“Col. Bill Francis ... said soldiers would remain in southeast Oklahoma ‘as long as the bureau needs us. Everyone keeps asking us about possible war in the Middle East and our role in it. But we have a war going on right now down here in southeast Oklahoma.’”
The United States at the time was just beginning to launch the first Iraq War, also known as the Gulf War, and it was uncertain who might be sent to fight in the Middle East. In the meantime, the Oklahoma National Guard was keeping itself busy by fighting the state’s war on cannabis.
Oklahoma grow raids the year prior in 1989 had included over 100 National Guard soldiers. Drug agents boasted about eradicating another 3.2 million cannabis plants. On one noteworthy occasion again in Hugo, a weed eradication operation was observed by then-Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon, a major proponent of the state’s anti-drug campaign at the time.
On this day in 1989 and with reporters watching, Bellmon had a front-row seat to the height of Oklahoma’s war on weed. These raids were dubbed “Operation Quiet Storm” and included 150 state and local law enforcers, National Guard troops, and agents from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Authorities said they seized between 3,000 to 5,000 plants, and one man was arrested on suspicion of cultivation.
Gov. Bellmon even got in on the action, according to the World in another story, and “accompanied officers and guardsmen into the hot, steamy fields where he helped cut and load plants.” Dressed in khaki pants, boots, and a hat emblazoned with the bureau acronym OBNDD, Gov. Bellmon “used a machete to whack down the thriving plants.”
“We’ve decided not to allow this sort of thing in our state,” Bellmon told the media. “We are a law-abiding state and are going to keep it that way.”
Of course, things have dramatically changed in Oklahoma since that time. The state surpassed $800 million in legal cannabis sales during 2020, far more than early market predictions. Licensing sign-ups are obliterating forecasts. As of early February, more than 370,000 people had patient medical marijuana licenses and more than 10,000 people had cannabis business licenses.
Compare that to better-established markets in Washington State, Oregon, and Colorado, where the number of cannabis dispensary licenses is far lower per 10,000 residents. The business barriers to entry in Oklahoma are also vastly lower with dispensary licenses generally costing $2,500 compared to $40,000 in Maryland, $30,000 in Pennsylvania, and $200,000 in New York State.
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