State Sen. Constance Johnson has filed a bill to legalize marijuana in Oklahoma and place its regulation under the control of the state Health Department.
“I think with our current system of laws and punishments for simple possession, we are burying ourselves into a pit where the costs are unsustainable,” said Johnson, who has made several unsuccessful past attempts to liberalize Oklahoma's marijuana laws.
Johnson said she believes unnecessarily harsh laws have ruined young people's lives, and that decriminalizing marijuana would reduce gang activity and violence.
Opposition to Johnson's bill has come quickly from some Oklahoma law enforcement officials.
“I think it will have an early death,” Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said of Senate Bill 2116.
The bill by Johnson, D-Forest Park, would make it legal for individuals 21 and older to purchase, possess and consume up to 1 ounce of marijuana and establish basic rules for its cultivation and sale.
“Why not?” asks Norma Sapp, state director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “That's the way we should go because then it's in a regulated market. We don't have any more of this black market funding to the gangs and the people who are making money off it on the street.”
Sapp said she has been energized by calls of support from throughout Oklahoma since legalized sales of marijuana began in Colorado, causing long lines of buyers to form at retail establishments in that state and producing more than $1 million in sales the first day.
If Oklahomans aren't ready to embrace legalization of recreational marijuana, Sapp said she hopes the Legislature will at least approve medicinal sales.
Sapp said a low-grade form of marijuana has shown tremendous promise in treating Dravet Syndrome, a rare and catastrophic form of epilepsy that afflicts children. Testimony about the medicinal value of marijuana will be presented to a state Senate committee in room 419c of the state Capitol at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 12, she said. Supporters of medicinal marijuana have labeled the day Medical Marijuana Lobby Day and are encouraging supporters to show up.
Whetsel and Darrell Weaver, executive director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, said they strongly oppose Johnson's marijuana bill.
“I'm just totally opposed to it,” Whetsel said. “Studies show it affects the brain, thought process and health much more adversely and differently than does alcohol.”
“My opinion is that it's bad for Oklahoma,” Weaver said. “There's always going to be collateral damage to any type of drug or substance or addiction. ... I think Oklahoma is struggling right now with prescription (drug abuse) issues and we've still got meth issues. ... I just don't know that legalization of something that can harm Oklahoma is a good thing.”
He predicted Colorado and other states that choose to legalize marijuana will face additional problems from addictions and traffic fatalities.
If marijuana were to be made legal in Oklahoma, Weaver said he believes his agency should handle registration requirements rather than the state Health Department.
“We're the experts, probably in the nation, on cultivation of marijuana,” Weaver said.
The bill introduced by Johnson would allow adults to legally grow and process up to five marijuana plants for their own use and the use of friends, if no money is exchanged.
It also would establish rules for commercial cultivation and sale.
The bill calls for a $50 per ounce excise tax to be collected from cultivation facilities and for revenues to be used to regulate the industry, with excess money being distributed to the state.
Fifty percent of excess revenues would go to the general fund, 30 percent to education, 10 percent to the Health Department for voluntary programs for the treatment of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana abuse and 10 percent to the Health Department for an education campaign.
Oklahoma currently has harsh marijuana laws.
A first offense of possessing even a small amount of marijuana is punishable by up to a year in jail and subsequent offenses are punishable by two to 10 years in prison. Individuals who sell marijuana can be imprisoned for up to life.
In addition to legalizing marijuana for adults, Johnson's bill would lower the punishment for individuals younger than 21, making possession of an ounce or less a civil offense punishable by a requirement that the person complete up to four hours of instruction in a drug awareness program.