EDITORIAL: Why you should vote YES to SQ 780 and 781

There are less than 25 days until the November 8 election. On the ballot, you will find a number of important state questions to consider. Of those state questions, the outcomes of SQ 780 and SQ 781 will be pivotal to lowering the prison populations of Oklahoma.

If SQ 780 is approved, simple drug possession and property crime offenses under $1000 will be reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors. The measure was introduced in an effort to lower state prison populations and decrease the amount of state funds spent on Oklahoma prisons.

A “yes” vote for SQ 780 is in favor of reclassifying certain property and drug possession offenses as misdemeanor crimes. SQ 780 and SQ 781 go hand in hand. A “yes” vote for SQ 781 is a vote to fund rehabilitative programs for substance abuse and mental health treatment with the money saved from reclassifying certain crimes as misdemeanors.

Although SQ 780 may pass on its own, the implementation of SQ 781 is contingent on the passage of SQ 780.

Oklahoma statutes say that a second offense of possession of marijuana is a felony, punishable by two to ten years in prison. If there is an “intent to distribute,” an individual can be incarcerated from two years to life.

These laws have contributed to Oklahoma having the second highest incarceration rate in the country. The state also has the highest incarceration rate for women. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections says that the average incarceration rate is 132 women to every 100,000 in the state. In comparison, the national incarceration rate is 68.

In August of 2016, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections released information showing that the state prison system is at 104 percent capacity, with a total of 27,097 inmates in the state.

Of that population 26.3 percent of those inmates are drug offenders, and 23.3 percent have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.

If both SQ 780 and 781 are approved, there will be fewer Oklahoma inmates serving time for nonviolent crimes.

Ray Colburn of Seminole County is one of the hundreds who have suffered under heavy Oklahoma drug laws. “I was on five years probation for three grams of marijuana in 1991,” Colburn explained. “In 1995, I was stopped at a traffic stop and I had 26 grams of marijuana in one bag, no scales, no extra baggies, just one bag. And they charged me with intent to distribute.”

On his second possession charge, Colburn received a 30 year sentence. “It was a ridiculous sentence, 30 years for 26 grams of marijuana. Just ridiculous,” he said.

SQ 780 will affect crimes ruled under simple possession, but will not change classification for possession with an intent to distribute.

“I think the question [780] would be a good thing, but if we’re going to leave it to the discretion of the district attorney’s, we’re not going to get anywhere with it,” Colburn said. “These district attorneys and cops are wide open to call it intent to distribute. If they throw intent to distribute on you, you’re cooked. The district attorneys have too much discretion, and it won’t help if they don’t change that.”

“It’s been a terrible thing for me. They wouldn’t give me a drug court or anything, and it has just kept on and on and on. I’ve lost most of my family ties and all of that,” he said. “Oklahoma needs to do something with their laws, because mine is just one story.”

Colburn is currently on parole.

Norma Sapp is the Oklahoma director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Sapp has followed Colburn’s case since 1991. Sapp’s history with marijuana advocacy began with an interest in hemp farming, which inspired her to pursue marijuana legalization. After years of working for reform, the pain and suffering of the families torn apart by incarceration fueled her desire for more change.  

Without 781 passing, 780 won’t work at all,” Sapp said. “If we don’t take the money that is realized from the savings of not locking up so many people and put it into county mental health facilities, and drug treatment, 780 won’t be beneficial.”

The Drug Policy Alliance reports that in 2014, the U.S. invested more than $51 billion in the war on drugs. Meanwhile, a record high of 47,000 individuals died of overdose the same year. Without proper treatment and rehabilitation, drug addiction will continue to rage.

Opponents of the questions argue that the approval of SQ 780 and SQ 781 would increase crime in Oklahoma.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler denounced both questions in an interview with the Tulsa Beacon.

“If you are caught with methamphetamine today, if this new law passes, it would be a misdemeanor. Tomorrow, if you get caught with methamphetamine, it will be a misdemeanor,” he said. “Two years from now, a misdemeanor. You could have 55 arrests and convictions for methamphetamine and always have a misdemeanor.”

Possession of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, LSD, marijuana, MDMA/ecstasy, or PCP in the state of Oklahoma is illegal. Charges of possession regarding any of these drugs will be reclassified under State Question 780.

“These things are obviously a threat to our community because of what happens for these people who try to fund their drug habits, you have got to have some kind of what I call a heavy hand,” Kunzweiler said.

The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 65 percent of all inmates meet the medical criteria for substance abuse, yet only 11 percent of US inmates ever receive treatment. Preventative measures against addiction and substance abuse are not being taken, therefore perpetuating the amount of ongoing addictions and repeat arrests.

SQ 780 and SQ 781 are a step towards the treatment and alleviation of drug addictions, instead of using expensive, punitive strategies that have not been effective for the nation.

Vote YES on SQ 780 and SQ 781.

See analysis of other State Questions appearing on this year’s ballot here.

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