- Associated Press - Saturday, February 15, 2014

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 while 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 chaired 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 convicted felon out of someone for simple possession of marijuana.

“Felons can’t vote. They can’t cut hair. There’s a whole list of things in the state of Oklahoma you can’t qualify for if you’ve been convicted of a felony,” Williams said.

Douglass Stallcup, a 49-year-old from Elmore City, said a felony conviction for selling pot in the 1980s has haunted him his entire life.

“I can’t vote. It’s messed my life up as far as getting jobs. If I get pulled over, they treat me like a parasite and always want to search my car,” said Stallcup, who drove 100 miles with his wife and 16-year-old son to Wednesday’s pro-marijuana rally at the statehouse. “It’s pretty much ruined my life, and it’s ruined a lot of other people’s lives.”

Still, the temptation for Oklahoma legislators to impose tough new criminal penalties for the latest high-profile crime proves irresistible every year. There are currently more than 300 active bills dealing with crime and punishment in Oklahoma, and many of those create new crimes or add more prison time to existing ones. Last year, lawmakers created several new felonies, including the cutting of someone’s fence.

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.

Ardmore Republican Rep. Pat Ownbey’s proposal to add four new prescription drugs to the list for which someone can be convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to life without parole sailed through a House committee last week with no discussion or debate.

“These are the worst of the worst who are trafficking in illegal drugs,” Ownbey said. “Obviously we’re not talking about catching somebody with 10 pills who’s having a problem.”

Oklahoma currently 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.

“What we really need is a true rewrite of Title 21, which deals with crimes and punishment,” Williams said. “It’s become filled with all these boutique criminal statutes, all hodgepodged together.”


Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy



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