OKLAHOMA CITY — An eastern Oklahoma lawmaker wants to prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries from operating within a 1,000 feet of places of worship.

State Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, said a constituent, who’s a Baptist church pastor, approached him, suggesting new dispensaries be banned near churches and other religious sites across the state.

“I thought it was a good idea as well,” said Olsen, who authored House Bill 2779.

The measure wouldn’t affect current dispensaries near churches but would prohibit new ones.

Olsen said zoning is necessary to preserve the character of a community. The state already forbids dispensaries from operating near schools. It seems logical to add churches, too, he said.

The idea has received widespread support among his mostly rural constituency, but it has drawn considerable criticism and profanity-laced messages from ardent medical marijuana supporters in urban parts of Oklahoma.

“Some of it has been polite, negative feedback,” Olsen said. “Some of it has not been very polite at all.”

The legislator said he didn’t know why policymakers haven’t already banned dispensaries from operating near churches.

“There’s a church on every corner here in Oklahoma,” said Chip Paul, who co-wrote the ballot initiative that ultimately legalized the drug for medicinal use.

Paul said he understood why it was necessary to ban dispensaries from operating near schools, but doesn’t understand why they shouldn’t operate near places of worship.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “Is it so annoying so church people don’t want to look at it? Is it a moral thing? I’m not seeing those as really weighty arguments like you’d have with a child potentially being exposed to a dispensary.”

Paul said a lot of towns though are attempting to circumvent state law by sneaking in bans through zoning restrictions.

State Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, served as one of the principal authors of the Legislature’s comprehensive medical marijuana laws. The measure is best known as the Unity Bill.

McCortney said he doesn’t remember why churches were excluded from the location ban.

“I know there was some hesitancy on a lot of what we did (because) the Unity Bill was coming after a lot of these places were open,” McCortney said.

But rather than tweak the medical marijuana legislation, which recently took effect, McCortney said he recommends lawmakers sit still for a session so they can gauge the impact of their legislation.

“I don’t know that we really know the effects of what we’ve done yet,” he said. “We did some really big things. … I think that until that stuff is really fully implemented, and we know exactly how it’s working, I’m not sure making more changes to the industry makes a lot of sense.”

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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