Lax regulation and low barriers to entry have triggered cannabis’s explosive growth in Sooner State
OKEMAH, Okla. — Chip Baker surveyed a vast field on the outskirts of an old hay farm an hour east of Oklahoma City, his ponytail waving in the thick, humid air, his voice growing excited.
“This is probably the largest collection of Squirt in the world!” he boasted, pointing to an array of neatly plotted cannabis plants before him that will soon flower pounds of the popular strain.
Baker would know. From the time he planted his first marijuana plant at 13, he’s been all about growing weed. A dream formed in the Georgia fields took him to Humboldt County, California — the nation’s earliest pot epicenter — then Colorado, the country’s first recreational market.
But it’s here in rural Oklahoma, down a dusty dirt road along the banks of the North Canadian River, where true cannabis cowboys — including droves of Colorado entrepreneurs like Baker — are buying mammoth properties to grow mammoth numbers of plants, all in a quest for mammoth stacks of kush-derived cash.
It’s a place unlike virtually any other in America.
“Other states grow patches,” Baker said with a grin, taking in the 90-acre, 40,000-plant cannabis farm before him. “In Oklahoma, we grow fields.”
The Sooner State, as deeply red as the American political palette will go, has almost overnight become the hottest place in the country to grow marijuana. It’s an unprecedented look at what happens when the government stays largely out of the picture and lets the free market run wild.
Oklahoma entered the world of legal cannabis late, but its hands-off approach launched a boom and a new nickname: ‘Toke-lahoma.’
WELLSTON, Oklahoma—One day in the early fall of 2018, while scrutinizing the finances of his thriving Colorado garden supply business, Chip Baker noticed a curious development: transportation costs had spiked fivefold. The surge, he quickly determined, was due to huge shipments of cultivation supplies—potting soil, grow lights, dehumidifiers, fertilizer, water filters—to Oklahoma.
Baker, who has been growing weed since he was 13 in Georgia, has cultivated crops in some of the world’s most notorious marijuana hotspots, from the forests of Northern California’s Emerald Triangle to the lake region ofSwitzerland to the mountains of Colorado. Oklahoma was not exactly on his radar. So one weekend in October, Baker and his wife Jessica decided to take a drive to see where all their products were ending up.
Voters in the staunchly conservative state had just four months earlier authorized a medical marijuana program and sales were just beginning. The Bakers immediately saw the potential for the fledgling market. With no limits on marijuana business licenses, scant restrictions on who can obtain a medical card, and cheap land, energy and building materials, they believed Oklahoma could become a free-market weed utopia and they wanted in.
Within two weeks, they found a house to rent in Broken Bow and by February had secured a lease on an empty Oklahoma City strip mall. Eventually they purchased a 110-acre plot of land down a red dirt road about 40 miles northeast of Oklahoma City that had previously been a breeding ground for fighting cocks and started growing high-grade strains of cannabis with names like Purple Punch, Cookies and Cream and Miracle Alien.“This is exactly like Humboldt County was in the late 90s,” Baker says, as a trio of workers chop down marijuana plants that survived a recent ice storm. “The effect this is going to have on the cannabis nation is going to be incredible.”Oklahoma is now the biggest medical marijuana market in the country on a per capita basis. More than 360,000 Oklahomans—nearly 10 percent of the state’s population—have acquired medical marijuana cards over the last two years. By comparison, New Mexico has the country’s second most popular program, with about 5 percent of state residents obtaining medical cards. Last month, sales since 2018 surpassed $1 billion.
To meet that demand, Oklahoma has more than 9,000 licensed marijuana businesses, including nearly 2,000 dispensaries and almost 6,000 grow operations. In comparison, Colorado—the country’s oldest recreational marijuana market, with a population almost 50 percent larger than Oklahoma—has barely half as many licensed dispensaries and less than 20 percent as many grow operations. In Ardmore, a town of 25,000 in the oil patch near the Texas border, there are 36 licensed dispensaries—roughly one for every 700 residents. In neighboring Wilson (pop. 1,695), state officials have issued 32 cultivation licenses, meaning about one out of 50 residents can legally grow weed.