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Oklahoma's harsh marijuana possession law has its critics

Oklahoma has some of the strictest marijuana-possession laws in the nation, but the reality is few people convicted only of possession find themselves serving time, law enforcement officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys say.
by Juliana Keeping Modified: February 2, 2014 at 10:00 pm •  Published: February 2, 2014

Smoke a joint on your porch in Denver and you face no legal consequence. Get caught doing it twice in Oklahoma City and the law says you could go to prison for up to 10 years.

Oklahoma has some of the strictest marijuana-possession laws in the nation, but the reality is few people convicted only of possession find themselves serving time, law enforcement officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys say.

“There are a lot of people who surely believe prisons are full of marijuana possession cases,” Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said. “It's not true. What's true, instead, is you have to work very hard to go to prison on drug possession cases in Oklahoma, period.”

Last month, State Sen. Constance Johnson filed Senate Bill 2116 to legalize marijuana in Oklahoma and place its regulation under the control of the state Health Department.

Johnson, D-Forest Park, says that Oklahoma's tough drug laws have filled the state's prisons with nonviolent offenders and been particularly hard on minorities, who studies show are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.

“At the end of the day, possession is overcriminalized in Oklahoma,” said Johnson who's made several unsuccessful past attempts to liberalize Oklahoma's marijuana laws.

Her latest effort comes amid changing national attitudes about marijuana decriminalization. Colorado and Washington recently became the first states in the nation to embark on what the Colorado governor has described as “one of the great social experiments of the century” — the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Sales in Colorado began in January. Sales in Washington are expected to begin soon. Depending on how legalization goes in those two states, many other states starved for tax revenue could soon follow suit. Twenty states and the District of Columbia already have approved marijuana for medical use.

President Barack Obama waded into the debate last month when he said he didn't think marijuana was any more dangerous than alcohol.

But many, including Gov. Mary Fallin, have said tokers shouldn't make plans to light up any time soon in the Sooner state. Fallin was quoted as recently as last month saying, “As long as I'm governor in Oklahoma, I'll do anything I can to prevent the legalization of marijuana.”

Detractors say legalization will increase traffic fatalities and lead more people down the path of addiction in a state already tangled in myriad substance abuse issues.

Tough but rare

Under Oklahoma law, a first offense of possessing even a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, a penalty roughly as serious as for driving under the influence of alcohol.

A second possession conviction within 10 years is a felony and punishable by a maximum 10-year prison sentence and $5,000 fine. Individuals who sell marijuana can face a life term.

In contrast, Colorado's Amendment 64 allows residents 21 and older to buy up to an ounce of pot at a time from state dispensaries. Under Denver city laws, residents can smoke joints on their front porches and balconies and gift up to 1 ounce of the drug to friends, so long as no money changes hands.

No statistics were immediately available to determine just how many people are incarcerated solely on state marijuana possession charges in Oklahoma. Five people were sent to federal prison for marijuana possession in Oklahoma in 2012, the latest year for which data is available.

In 15 years representing mostly young, poor, minority clients, Oklahoma City attorney Chad Moody, who advertises as “The Drug Lawyer,” said he's never seen a maximum 10-year sentence handed out. Instead, most clients take plea bargains that result in probation.

“It costs money,'' Moody said of prosecutors opting not to send people to prison.

Ryan Coventon, another Oklahoma City defense attorney, said most prosecutors are more likely to offer help rather than pursue punishment.

“If their goal is to get this person off marijuana because it's an illegal substance, prison is not going to do that,'' Coventon said. “It's going to take treatment.”

Drug and veterans' courts and other programs that aim to keep people with minor offenses out of prison and jail also contribute to the low incarceration rate for marijuana users, Rowland, assistant district attorney, said.

The reformers

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by Juliana Keeping
Enterprise Reporter
Juliana Keeping is on the enterprise reporting team for The Oklahoman and Keeping joined the staff of The Oklahoman in 2012. Prior to that time, she worked in the Chicago media at the SouthtownStar, winning a Peter Lisagor Award...
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