Inside the Rise — and Surprising Crackdown — of the Country’s Hottest Weed Market

‘I’ve seen the dark side of it’

Some people think illegal weed has been part of Oklahoma’s medical marijuana market from the moment the first dispensaries opened for business in November 2018. There was no way, they say, that licensed cultivators could have produced crops in time for the start of sales, yet somehow retailers’ shelves were full.

“It was clearly an issue from day one,” said Bill Moore, who has worked as a pharmacist for nearly two decades, with shops in Ardmore and Marietta.

Moore was initially wary of Oklahoma’s medical marijuana program, since he’d seen close up the ravages that drugs have caused his clients.

“I’ve seen the dark side of it, I guess you’d say, doing what I do,” Moore lamented on a recent weekday afternoon. “Seeing people come in and cry for their Norco or their Xanax or their Oxycodone.”

But Moore quickly came to appreciate the potential therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana, whether in helping people reduce their dependence on opioids or in treating ailments like insomnia or anxiety. He opened the NatureMeds dispensary in Ardmore shortly after medical sales began in 2018, and then added a second shop in nearby Ada in 2020.

But competition is brutal in the dispensary business in Oklahoma. As of Nov. 10, there were 47 licensed medical marijuana shops in Ardmore, a town of about 25,000 residents. In Ada, with a population of roughly 17,000, there were 18 licensed dispensaries. Statewide, there’s nearly one licensed dispensary for every 150 patients enrolled in the program.

“Margins are too slim to make any real money,” lamented Moore, a baby-faced 48-year-old wearing a green polo shirt and seated at conference table inside the NatureMeds dispensary in Ardmore. “We get excited every time one shuts down, but you drive around the corner and another one’s opened up.”

Indeed, the signs of Oklahoma’s booming medical marijuana market can be seen all over this region of the state. Hoop houses dot rural roads. Pot shops are located in seemingly every strip mall. Weed billboards offering pre-roll specials adorn the highways.