The most important action the Oklahoma Legislature could take to relieve prison overcrowding and reduce the state's high incarceration rates is to implement sensible drug laws.
The so-called war on drugs, declared by the late President Richard Nixon in 1971 and continued by each president to this day, has been a dismal failure, a money-wasting and life-destroying debacle. Are drugs the scourge of our culture or is it the stringent criminalization of them?
State Sen. Constance Johnson, a Forest Park Democrat, has introduced a couple of bills this legislative session in Oklahoma that, if passed, would bring some sanity to the state's harsh criminal law system and also help people with illnesses and conditions that could benefit from medical marijuana.
Senate Bill 914 would reduce the criminal penalties for possession of marijuana. Under the new law, people convicted of possession of 1.5 ounce or less of marijuana would face a maximum 10 days in jail and a $200 fine. Under current law, the penalties are a maximum of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
This is a sensible beginning in a conservative state to an eventual complete decriminalization of marijuana or even its legalization. Both the states of Washington and Colorado recently legalized recreational use of marijuana and other states are sure to follow. Many health experts believe alcohol is a much more potent drug than marijuana. In addition, by decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, states reduce or eliminate the criminal element in its distribution.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections website, Oklahoma has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation and is ranked first, on a per capita basis, in female incarceration. Many inmates are serving time for non-violent drug crimes. Reducing the penalties for marijuana possession would be a good start to an overhaul of all the state's drug laws.
Johnson has also introduced Senate Bill 902 that would legalize medical marijuana in the state. Under the bill, the State Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision would develop a system for prescribing and allowing access to "medical cannabis."
Currently, 18 states and Washington, D.C. allow medical marijuana for people with illnesses. That number is only going to grow as well.
Johnson's bills are common sense approaches to the widespread use of marijuana in Oklahoma and throughout the country, but it's unclear whether the Oklahoma Senate leadership will even allow the bills to come to a vote and it's probably unlikely the bills would pass in the Republican-dominated legislature. Last year, Johnson was refused a request to conduct an interim legislative study on marijuana issues.
Still, Johnson should be commended for doing the right thing against typical, conservative legislative opposition. History is definitely on her side. Those legislators who oppose these simple measures are wasting taxpayers' money through needless and costly incarcerations while refusing people basic relief from illnesses.