LITTLE AXE — Few Oklahomans could rival Norma Sapp's efforts to legalize marijuana.
She drove a motor home across the United States, serving as the support vehicle for a friend who was riding his one-eyed paint horse, Misty, across the country to raise awareness of a message: “Cops say legalize marijuana, ask me why.”
She has walked the marble hallways of the state Capitol more times than she can remember to advocate for changes in Oklahoma's marijuana laws.
And she ran for a state House office in the 1990s — and quickly learned she didn't want it.
Sapp is a walking encyclopedia for her cause.
And still, nothing.
Despite the failures, Sapp stays motivated by thinking about what impact a prison sentence can have on a family.
“We've ruined the next generation and the next generation by taking mothers away from their children,” Sapp said. “When you take a child and affect them like that, they'll never grow out of it.”
Oklahoma has some of the strictest marijuana laws in the nation, and marijuana advocates such as Sapp have seen little success in getting lawmakers to discuss much of anything.
This past session, Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, got an Oklahoma Senate committee to hear her bill on medical marijuana.
Sen. Brian Crain, a Tulsa Republican who chaired the committee, told The Associated Press that although he personally opposes the idea, he agreed to hear Johnson's bill because of her persistence.
Johnson recently requested an interim study on “the status of policies in Oklahoma regarding marijuana use, possession and punishment.” It has yet to be heard.
Few other attempts
Beyond Johnson's efforts, few lawmakers in recent state history have made many attempts at marijuana reform.
When Sapp ran for office in 1996, she wanted to educate Oklahomans on the agricultural benefits of hemp.
She quickly learned that the Capitol was not a place she felt she could make change, though.
“I did it to speak,” Sapp said. “I didn't think I was going to be elected. That would have shocked me. I don't know what I would have done. I wanted to be able to go to all of these campaign stops, and I have some hemp rope and some hemp soap, and I would take those with me and speak about the hemp.”
Instead of holding office, Sapp serves as the state director of Oklahoma NORML, a branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a nonprofit lobbying organization working to legalize marijuana.
She regularly takes calls from people throughout Oklahoma who are experiencing some form of legal trouble because of marijuana.
There was the couple in their 60s that lived in southeast Oklahoma. They faced prison time after someone grew marijuana on their land without them realizing it, she said. Another couple in Cleveland County faced similar charges.
And another man that Sapp talked to was growing pot for his arthritis in Tulsa and got 93 years in prison, she said.
Other states' reform
Meanwhile, more and more states are moving toward some form of marijuana legislative reform. Ballot measures in Colorado and Washington created the most permissive marijuana laws in the U.S., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Colorado and Washington were both among the first states to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, and Denver was the first major city in the U.S. to legalize pot for adult possession.
Oklahoma boasts many lasts in the realm of liquor legislation — one of the last states to legalize liquor by the drink, and the second-to-last state to repeal Prohibition, only in front of Mississippi. And the state is one of the few to still sell low-point beer.
Will Oklahoma be among the last to legalize or decriminalize marijuana?
Sapp hopes not and argues a recent poll shows Oklahoma public opinion about pot is changing.
Oklahoma NORML recently paid Sooner Poll, an Oklahoma public polling company, to ask a series of marijuana-related questions to residents throughout the state.
About 64 percent of the people polled said people arrested for a marijuana offense should be treated for drug abuse, rather than jailed.
About 47 percent of the people polled said they strongly supported Oklahoma allowing “seriously ill patients to possess marijuana for medical purposes with a physician's recommendation.” Another 24 percent said they somewhat supported the notion.
Sooner Poll also collected information about the people they polled, including age, church attendance and political party.
One of the more surprising results for Sapp was the support of medical marijuana from evangelical Christians who were polled.
About 34 percent of residents who were polled who identify as “evangelical Christians” said they “strongly support” allowing seriously ill patients to use marijuana for “medical purposes with a physician's recommendation.” Another 26 percent of evangelical Christians said they “somewhat support” the notion.
Sapp said the cultural shift is becoming more obvious, even in Oklahoma.
“I don't want to see my kids, grandkids or great grandkids ever arrested for pot, for a plant that God put on this planet, and I want to be able utilize the agricultural benefits of hemp,” she said. “That's big.”
Over the past 11 years, Sapp has slowed down. Her husband of 22 years, Steven Sapp, died in 2002 of a heart attack. He was 50.
Since her husband's death, she has retired. Sapp spends time on her farm near Little Axe with her animals — among them, Angel, a brown and black dog that came in off the road and adopted Sapp, another dog, a few cats and some horses that pasture behind her house.
She farmed for a while, growing organic cantaloupe, okra and a long list of other fruits and vegetables. She now just grows food for herself.
She continues to help with local elections and has since 1988.
“You know the three little old ladies that take your (voter ID) cards? I'm the one who has to take the bookwork back to the election board,” Sapp said.
And Sapp still continues her trek to the Capitol because, as she puts it, the state's “tough-on-crime” stance is breaking up families.
Oklahoma has long ranked No. 1 in female incarceration and usually in the top five for incarcerating men.
“If you positively affect a woman, you positively affect the next three generations,” Sapp said. “And we have done totally the opposite. Those poor kids that have gotten separated from their mothers and put into foster care … That's what motivates me, the injustices.”
We've ruined the next generation and the next generation by taking mothers away from their children.”