A measure that would no longer make second and subsequent charges of possessing marijuana a felony in Oklahoma remains alive, despite skepticism from several members on a legislative committee.
“I believe that while our constituents don't support us coming down here and legalizing it, I do believe that they support us being smart on crime,” said Rep. Cory Williams, author of House Bill 1835. “We're not being soft on it; we're not legalizing it.”
Williams, D-Stillwater, agreed Wednesday to stop a committee hearing on his measure so he could do more work on it, in particular, coming up with a maximum number of charges in which a simple marijuana possession could result in a felony.
He said he also would work with district attorneys to look at a weight measure, with the amount of the illegal drug possessed in a subsequent arrest determining whether a misdemeanor or felony charge would be warranted.
Under current state law, first-offense marijuana possession is a misdemeanor. But marijuana possession within 10 years of a prior conviction is a felony, carrying a penalty of two to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000. Possession of marijuana 10 or more years after a prior conviction also is a felony, with a penalty of one to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000.
Williams said his bill would not affect those charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute.
“This is just the smaller amount for personal consumption,” he said.
Williams said many of those convicted of possessing marijuana are young and don't realize they will be charged with a felony if they're convicted a second time.
Rep. Randy Grau, R-Edmond, a member of the House of Representatives Public Safety Committee, said he is concerned that the measure places no limit on the number of subsequent arrests in which possessing marijuana still would be a misdemeanor.
“If we have somebody that's getting picked up on possession every six months, at what point could the DA charge him with a felony, if ever?” Grau asked.
Another committee member, Rep. Fred Jordan, R-Jenks, said he also had difficulty supporting a bill that would allow someone to have multiple convictions of possessing marijuana but not be charged with a felony.
“You've got to have a step for a felony,” Jordan said. “The overall goal is probably a good one.”
Williams said subsequent arrests could result in stiffer fines and fees, as well as longer community service requirements.
“The DA can still file a misdemeanor,” Williams said. “The DA can still escalate the punishment.
“You could get a whole ton of community service, which I would argue is actually better for the community than him sitting in a county jail or having a felony stigma attached,” he said.
Trent Baggett, assistant executive coordinator of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, said after the meeting that his group opposes HB 1835 in its present form, but it is willing to work with Williams.