, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

July 28, 2012

State senator faces uphill marijuana battle

OKLAHOMA CITY — A longtime proponent of medicinal marijuana, state Sen. Constance Johnson acknowledges she has few open advocates in the conservative Oklahoma Legislature.

But the Oklahoma City-area Democrat said she remains optimistic that attitudes toward easing Oklahoma's tough marijuana laws are shifting, and she said her hopes are buoyed by the possibility of the Republican-controlled Senate approving a study on the benefits of medicinal marijuana.

Johnson, D-Forest Park, has introduced a medicinal marijuana bill every year since she was first elected in 2005, but has yet to receive a hearing in committee. Now, she is petitioning the Republican chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services to allow for a study on the issue before the Legislature reconvenes in February.

"The legislative process moves slowly. It's taken seven years just to get a study, and even that's not a given," Johnson said. "I'm an eternal optimist, and I'm optimistic that it will get a hearing one day. Things are changing.

"More and more people are going to speak up and speak out, and that's how change happens, when it happens at the grassroots level."

Supporters of the legal use of marijuana for medicinal purposes say it eases the pain of those who suffer from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, chronic pain, and other diseases.

Despite Johnson's optimism, it's unlikely the bill will get far in the Oklahoma Legislature, which just last year passed a bill allowing a sentence of up to life in prison for a first-time offender who attempts to convert marijuana to hashish. The state has some of the toughest drug penalties in the country, including mandatory life-without-parole sentences for certain drug traffickers and a required felony charge for second-time drug offenders, even for simple possession of marijuana.

"With our Legislature, it's always a race to the draconian finish line," said Chad Moody, an Oklahoma City defense attorney who specializes in drug cases. "If one lawmaker says we need a $100 fine for jaywalking, the next one says they want the death penalty because they want to be tough on crime.

"I don't understand why this Republican Legislature doesn't want liberty across the board."

Several pro-marijuana advocates planned to meet with Johnson on Saturday to suggest experts to testify at any interim legislative hearing.

Sen. Brian Crain, the chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said he is "lukewarm" to the idea of an interim study on medicinal marijuana, but that he will decide whether to have a hearing after listening to what Johnson has planned.

"I still have not made a decision," said Crain, R-Tulsa, a former prosecutor. "I have a lot of questions and not many answers. If she's got some new information and there's something that sounds like it merits a discussion, then let's do it.

"If we're talking about medical marijuana for recreational use, I'm opposed to that."

Officials with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs fiercely oppose any effort to allow medicinal marijuana in Oklahoma, but a spokesman for the law enforcement agency said they welcome the opportunity for an interim study.

"Marijuana is not medicine," said OBN spokesman Mark Woodward. "We would welcome the opportunity to get to the truth about what's behind medical marijuana."

Woodward said he believes those pushing for medicinal marijuana also support the legalization of marijuana, and that recreational use becomes more widespread in states that legalize medicinal marijuana.

"It's not about patients or health care or two joints for a cancer patient," Woodward said. "We're talking about 60 pounds of high-grade marijuana going out the back door of these medicinal marijuana stores stuffed into the trunk of a car on its way to the East Coast."

But Jeff Pickens, a medicinal marijuana advocate, disagrees.

"That's ridiculous," said Pickens, the president of the Drug Policy Reform Network of Oklahoma. "Medical marijuana, where it's available, is provided to anyone with a doctor's recommendation. That is completely different than legalization."

"Just because people take advantage of a good service doesn't mean the service isn't good. Almost anything that benefits the public, people take advantage of it, but that's no reason to deny people relief from suffering."

It's clear the push for greater use of marijuana is expanding. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia currently have medicinal marijuana laws enacted, according to the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws. A push is underway to have a medicinal marijuana state question on the November ballot in neighboring Arkansas, and voters in Washington and Colorado are expected to vote in November on whether to legalize small amounts of marijuana.

Medicinal marijuana advocates say the Arkansas initiative will be a bellwether for Oklahoma because of the state's common border and demographic similarities. If advocates there are successful, Pickens said Oklahoma could be next.

"We will move forward with a ballot initiative in Oklahoma, whether the Oklahoma Legislature helps us or not," Pickens said.

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