Given the damage to so many lives from enforcement of the prohibition on marijuana use, liberalization of those laws is emerging as a movement with bipartisan appeal, even reaching into Red States like Oklahoma, as Richard L. Fricker reports.
By Richard L. Fricker
In Oklahoma, one of the reddest of Republican Red States, a glimmer of progressivism has broken through around the issue of marijuana where support appears strong for legalized medical marijuana and for reducing criminal penalties for other forms of possession.
A 2013 survey of Oklahoma’s registered voters – conducted by Sooner Poll and released by the pro-legalization group NORML – showed 71.2 percent favoring medical marijuana, 63.7 percent favoring treatment over incarceration for marijuana-related crimes, and 57.1 percent preferring that minor marijuana violations be treated as a non-criminal, fine-only offense.
Those numbers are not much different from the results of a recent national Gallup poll which showed 85 percent approval for medical marijuana, 73 percent approval for decriminalization and 58 percent approval for full legalization.
That conservative Oklahoma favors liberalizing marijuana laws reflects a trend among young Republicans toward libertarianism as well as the personal experience of so many – from all political persuasions – who have seen their own lives or the lives of relatives and friends scarred by arrests, incarceration and criminal records because of the “war on drugs”/”zero tolerance” prohibition on marijuana use.
Currently, Oklahoma’s marijuana penalties are among the country’s harshest, with sales of any cannabis punishable by two years to life in prison. Subsequent minor marijuana possession offenses are punishable by two to ten years in prison.
As Oklahoma’s public attitudes change, marijuana is finding its way into the discussion of November’s election. Legalization proponents have prepared an initiative petition seeking a popular vote on comprehensive legalization. The petitioners seek to legalize and decriminalize nearly all aspects of the current marijuana statute by creating a system for personal use, retail sale, taxation, cultivation, inspection and licensing.
The petition is, according Democratic State Sen. Constance Johnson, a response to legislative foot-dragging on medical marijuana legislation and recent polls showing strong bipartisan popular support for legalization and decriminalization. If petitioners are successful in placing the question on the November ballot, Oklahoma could possibly join the 21 other states that have legalized marijuana in some form.
“This will be the most comprehensive petition thus far,” said Oklahoma City attorney David Slane, architect of the referendum. “It will include provisions for medical, decriminalization, sale, growing, packaging, taxing and even harvesting hemp.”
Slane said the proposal would include penalties for selling without a license, driving under the influence and workplace regulation by employers. “You won’t,” he noted, “be able to be on the streets smoking.”
State Sen. Johnson has introduced legislation to legalize medical marijuana in every session since taking office in 2005. When making her candidacy announcement for the U.S. Senate at the Tulsa Press Club, Johnson said, “Marijuana may be a defining moment in Oklahoma politics. It could turn the political pot upside down.”
Results of a Democratic and Republican polling firm operating in conjunction with George Washington University suggest that 68 percent of voters would be more likely to vote if if marijuana legalization were on the ballot. In Colorado and Washington state, youth voting, 18-30, increased by five to 12 points when legalized marijuana was on the ballot.
Tom Angell, founder of the group Marijuana Majority, told the National Journal, “These numbers provide even more evidence that marijuana reform is a mainstream issue and that smart politicians would do well to start treating it as such.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is the latest state chief executive joining in the drive for national decriminalization. He just signed legislation which made possession of 10 grams or less equal to a traffic citation and fine.
“I now think that decriminalizing possession of marijuana is an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police, and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health,” O’Malley said.
President Barack Obama waded into the debate during a January interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol. It’s not something I encourage.”
Attorney General Eric Holder joined with the President in an interview with the Huffington Post, saying he was “cautiously optimistic” regarding complete decriminalization as it has taken place in Washington state and Colorado. Both states began open sale of marijuana this year.
Holder noted his experience as a judge: “I had to put in jail substantial numbers of young people for possessory drug offenses, and it was not from the perspective I had as a judge necessarily a good use of law enforcement resources.”
Drug Enforcement Administration head Michele Leonhart disagreed with the President on the marijuana/alcohol comparison saying voters and legislators had been misled in supporting decriminalization. Another DEA official said “every single parent out there” was against decriminalization.
Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs spokesman Mark Woodward has attempted to make the same argument. However, to date he has offered little more than standard “war on drugs” hyperbole. Nearly 70,000 former prosecutors and law officers of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition disagree with the hard-line anti-marijuana position.
In Oklahoma, a state known for its conservatism, marijuana could be a wedge issue in a year many pundits have already given over to the Republicans. Remembering that 72.1 per cent of those polled approved of medical marijuana – and that the Tea Party-controlled legislature refused to hear the issue – the question becomes who does the legislature represent?
Nearly 200,000 signatures of registered voters in Oklahoma are required to place the issue on the November general election ballot.
Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. His latest book, The Last Day of the War, is available at https://www.createspace.com/3804081 or at www.richardfricker.com.