MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

February 16, 2014

Legislators willing to discuss easing pot penalties

Likelihood of making it legal seems nil


Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)— Despite last week’s largest pro-marijuana rally at the Oklahoma Capitol in recent history, there is little appetite in the conservative Oklahoma Legislature to join other states in legalizing cannabis, even for medicinal purposes.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle say that although attitudes may slowly be shifting toward loosening laws that prohibit Oklahomans from smoking pot, the idea isn’t worth the potential political fallout in a state with a tough-on-crime reputation that predates statehood— especially during an election year.

But with a growing prison system that consumes more of the state’s budget each year, along with the societal costs of locking up a greater share of its residents than nearly every other state, even conservative politicians in Oklahoma have expressed a willingness to look at options other than just longer prison sentences.

“We incarcerate a lot of people tied into drugs,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “So if there are things we can do with treatment to address the problem ... certainly anything we can do to keep people out of prison would be cost-effective.”

Gov. Mary Fallin touted being “smart on crime” in her state of the state address and promised to continue pushing the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a plan to divert some nonviolent offenders from prison and slow the explosive growth of the Corrections Department.

And many longtime proponents of overhauling the state’s criminal code, which has some of the harshest penalties in the country, are optimistic about last week’s election of state Rep. Jeff Hickman as the new speaker of the House. Hickman, R-Fairview, has three prisons in his district and most recently was the chairman of the House budget committee that oversees funding for prisons, so he is intimately familiar with the impact the state’s nearly 27,000 inmates is having on the budget.

Hickman also was an ally of former House Speaker Kris Steele, an outspoken opponent of the state’s approach to criminal justice who spearheaded JRI during his last term in office.

“People like me are elated, because this is an issue that I think he gets, and gets in terms of more than just giving it lip service,” said state Rep. Cory Williams, a Stillwater Democrat who has pushed for years to reduce the state’s criminal penalties for marijuana possession.

Under current law, a second conviction of simple marijuana possession can result in a felony conviction and up to 10 years in prison. Williams said it makes no sense for the state to make a felon out of someone for simple possession of marijuana.

Still, the temptation for legislators to impose tough new criminal penalties for the latest high-profile crime proves irresistible. There are currently more than 300 active bills dealing with crime and punishment in Oklahoma.

This year, there are harsh new penalties being proposed for a variety of crimes, including influencing jurors, assaulting a teacher or removing objects from a disaster area.

Oklahoma has 51 inmates serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for trafficking illegal drugs, and of the state’s nearly 27,000 inmates, many are in for possession (10 percent) or distribution (16.5 percent) of illegal drugs, according to the most recent DOC statistics.