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.
To Norma Sapp, Oklahoma's drug laws are just plain reefer madness.
“When a person does no other crime than partake of a plant that God put on this planet, what the heck are we doing?” said Sapp, the state director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Sapp is organizing a pro-legalization rally at the state Capitol Feb. 12.
Sen. Johnson's bill would make it legal for individuals 21 and older to purchase, possess and consume up to an ounce of marijuana and would establish basic rules for its cultivation and sale. Violators would be required to attend a drug awareness class, but first-time offenders would avoid a criminal record.
The American Civil Liberties Union supports Johnson's legalization bid.
“What I believe Sen. Johnson's law would do is create a system of taxation and regulation of responsible adult use of marijuana,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.
Legalization opponents downplay any perceived benefits.
Officials with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs contend marijuana use is more dangerous than alcohol.
And they dispute claims that the state's strict marijuana possession laws have filled the state's prisons. Far fewer people are serving harsh sentences for marijuana possession crimes than legalization supporters suggest, bureau spokesman Mark Woodward said.
Many of those imprisoned for marijuana possession might have pleaded down from more serious charges, such as distribution, he said.
Even if it doesn't result in a jail sentence, a marijuana conviction can have dire consequences.
“Some of the worst effects are what we call collateral sanctions — losing housing, the ability to get student loans, hurting your job prospects, and placing your family at risk if you've got children at home,” said Chris Lindsey, a legislative analyst with The Marijuana Policy Project, a legalization advocacy group. “Even if they find a way to avoid jail time, these are very far-reaching effects in a person's life.”
Corey Wright, 41, of Oklahoma City, was headed into a Valley Brook strip club with friends after work one day in 2010, when he said a security guard accosted him about smelling like pot. Oklahoma County sheriff's deputies who responded searched Wright's car and found a gun and less than a gram of marijuana. Wright was charged with illegally possessing both.
Wright said he carried the gun for safety. He'd previously served time for dealing cocaine, but had gotten his life together since leaving prison more than a decade ago, earning a master's degree in business and opening up a screen printing shop, he said.
After his marijuana arrest, Wright said he spent $10,000 trying to avoid a felony conviction and prison. In November 2011, he pleaded guilty to reduced charges of reckless conduct with a firearm and disorderly conduct and was sentenced to 10 years probation.
“I've wasted a lot of money fighting for my freedom here in Oklahoma,” he said.
Even now, he said he stands to lose his home to foreclosure, in part, due to possessing an amount of marijuana that weighed less than the average paper clip.
Wright, who is black, believes drug laws unfairly target poor and minorities.
“There's not a war on drugs, there's actually a war on certain classes of people,” Wright said.
Rowland, the Oklahoma County assistant prosecutor, said given his past legal history, Wright could have fared much worse in Oklahoma's legal system. Given the presence of a gun and past criminal history, Rowland called probation “a pretty sweet deal.”
“Ordinarily, once you've been to prison you won't get a deferred sentence thereafter,” he said.
In other cases, prior convictions for marijuana possession can be a factor that contributes to a life sentence.
In 1996, Kevin Ott, then 33, was on parole for growing and possessing marijuana when Cleveland County authorities found 3.5 ounces of methamphetamine, a handgun, scales and empty baggies in his trailer.
Today, Ott is one of 48 people in Oklahoma state prisons serving life without parole for nonviolent drug crimes. In a telephone interview from the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, about 140 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, Ott said that he sold drugs to feed his own addiction to methamphetamines, from which he has since recovered.
“How can you lock up somebody to die over a nonviolent crime?” said Ott, now 51. “I am sentenced to death, not sentenced to be punished or corrected. I'm sentenced to die in prison.”