Arrests for possession of marijuana spiked in Oklahoma in 2016. What happened?

In May, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) released official crime statistics for 2016. While most attention on crime rates is rightly devoted to serious crimes, OSBI noted an eye-catching development in a supplemental report: arrests for drug crimes increased by over 20 percent from 2015. Part of this may be the result of changes in reporting methods, as agencies switch from reporting totals to incident-based reporting. However, when viewed in light of other trends in the report, it suggests that some law enforcement agencies were devoting more resources to low-level drug crimes — possibly at the expense of investigating more serious crimes — in the run up to the November 2016 election. The surge happened as Oklahomans prepared to vote on whether to reclassify simple drug possession as a misdemeanor, which they ultimately did in November 2016. This apparent shift to focus on minor drug crimes reflects a bad case of misaligned priorities.

Local agencies made more drug arrests in 2016, but fewer arrests for other crimes

OSBI includes statistics both for crimes that are reported to law enforcement and for arrests made by agencies. Reports of most “index crimes” — serious offenses like murder, aggravated assault, and burglary — increased in number from 2015, while the number of murders ticked down. Overall, the number of index crimes (not the crime rate, which takes into account population changes) rose by 5.1 percent following three consecutive years of decreases. 

Despite the rise in reported index crimes, the number of arrests for those offenses by county and city agencies fell by over 10 percent (our analysis does not include state agencies or juvenile arrests, which causes slight variations from the numbers cited here). Similarly, arrests for alcohol-related crimes fell by over 10 percent, continuing a long decline. But the number of drug arrests by local agencies increased by about 16 percent, by far the largest single-year increase in recent years. This is enough to at least raise an eyebrow — with more serious crimes being reported, why are there fewer arrests for those crimes but more for drug crimes?

The increase in drug arrests was driven by marijuana and uncategorized drugs

OSBI also provides numbers of drug arrests broken down by possession or sales/manufacturing, as well as the category of the substance: marijuana; opium, cocaine and their derivatives; synthetic narcotics; and other. Possession accounted for about 9 in 10 drug arrests in 2016. While all categories of drugs saw increases in arrests, the increases were far higher for marijuana and other drugs; together, these categories accounted for 80 percent of the increase in the number of arrests.

Since the arresting officer decides which category the drug falls under, and it’s not always clear what the substance is at the time of an arrest, the “other” category likely includes most arrests for illegal possession of prescription pills. Because of this, it’s likely that the sharp increase in arrests can be at least partly explained by law enforcement focusing on opioids, a growing concern in Oklahoma. Our state has struggled with prescription abuse for years, and Attorney General Mike Hunter has led an effort to bring together substance abuse services, law enforcement, and others to combat the problem.

The increase in marijuana arrests is more puzzling. Numbers had been following a clear downward trend, seeing an increase in only one of the previous seven years. The increase of 20 percent in marijuana arrests from 2015 to 2016 is a drastic deviation from that trend, alone accounting for 43 percent of the overall increase in drug arrests. As Oklahoma prepares to vote on legalizing marijuana for medical purposes in 2018, the trend seems to be far out of step with the current moment.

Did law enforcement agencies shift their priorities?

It’s no secret that many law enforcement leaders were among the loudest opponents of SQ 780, the ballot question passed by voters in 2016 that reclassified simple drug possession and minor property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. In the run-up to the election, for example, Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton darkly predicted that people with addictions would create havoc: “They can steal more, and use drugs freely and openly. If you’re caught with heroin on a school playground, you’re guilty of a misdemeanor. … I think it sends a message that these things aren’t as bad.” Oklahoma voters didn’t see it that way, passing the question and its companion measure, SQ 781, by healthy margins.

It’s possible that some law enforcement agencies, believing SQ 780 would send a message that drugs “aren’t as bad,” would use their discretion to reinforce their own message that drugs are indeed dangerous by arresting more people. The trends in drug arrests across counties differed widely: agencies in 25 counties — about one in three — made fewer drug arrests in 2016 than in 2015. But the counties with the largest populations saw marked increases: 11.6 percent in Oklahoma County, 13.6 percent in Tulsa County, and 24.8 percent in Cleveland County. The increase of 639 drug arrests in Oklahoma County — home of outspoken SQ 780 opponent District Attorney David Prater — alone accounts for almost a quarter of the total state increase.

Misplaced priorities are harmful to all Oklahomans

Local law enforcement leaders must make critical decisions about where to focus their limited resources. The best research shows that the most effective ways to prevent crime are to address issues like substance abuse through treatment rather than punishment, and to make people who would break the law feel that they’re likely to be caught. Last year’s crime statistics show that, on average, our law enforcement agencies moved in the opposite direction in 2016: focusing less on investigating and making arrests for serious crimes, and spending more time arresting people for drug crimes. This is the wrong approach if we hope to make Oklahoma communities safer and stronger.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

7 thoughts on “Arrests for possession of marijuana spiked in Oklahoma in 2016. What happened?

  1. Is it possible that leading up to and immediately following the vote on SQ780 & 781, more people had marijuana and other drugs on them (ie during traffic stops, etc) so were simply caught more? Was that data analyzed at all?

    That still would not account for increase in index crime vs decrease in arrest rates though.

  2. Law enforcement focused on easy arrest so they can get their kick back instead of arresting real criminals. Every time the D. A. gets a conviction on drug charges they get a bonus.
    It’s easy to arrest a non-violent person for simple possession of marijuana and turn them into an instant criminal. Then put them away for life at extreme taxpayer cost for each year. Meanwhile, murderers and rapists do 2-5 years and get out.
    Families are torn apart while kids go to State custody at more extreme taxpayers costs while still overcrowding prisons because of a draconian law towards marijuana.
    All this over a plant that has been used by people for over 2,000 years.
    It’s way past time for Oklahoma to come out of the dark ages with their draconian laws over marijuana not to mention other draconian laws that turn everybody into instant criminals.

  3. VERY VERY TRUE yes and even in BIBLE<
    So how far back must we go to Admitsociety has been WRONG pertaining to cannibus, hemp, pot, marijuana?

  4. Oklahoma has a cash cow in Marijuana. It is easy to detect, and the “criminal” are easier to arrest than violent criminals or those on crack cocaine, formaldehyde, and other drugs that cause people to be more violent. Heroin and opioids are wrecking families and the addicts themselves. They rob their own families blind then court costs, fines, bail, lawyer fees finish them off. If marijuana was decriminalize most of these people would use it and not go on to more harmful drugs such as K-2 or heroin. Heroin and opioids result in felony charges that ruin any chances for meaningful employment, schooling, housing and other punishment that last a lifetime. If treatment is the answer it would have to be mandatory. Addicts won’t do it on their own. My son fell into addiction and cost us over 150,000 dollars. He is now in voluntary rehab. with 3 felonies. Oklahoma preys on addiction and all of Oklahoma pays the price.

  5. I was one of those people arrested for marijuanaand crammed into a holding room with 50 to 100 other arrestees in the inhumane Oklahoma County jail. Edmond police for reasons we still
    Don’t understand raided my sisters house which I resided in with her and my 17 year old niece and nieces boyfriend and 3 other roomates , we had a full house . 10 to 15 cops barge in , made my crying , scared niece and me crawling down the hall with AR-15 s pointed at us threatening to shoot us , my niece thought they were going to execute us there in the hall. I admit casual personal marijuana use goes onther and if othr drug use went on then against house rules but we weren’t drug dealers . This happened February 3 2016 in Edmond and arrested for possession of a bagie , I had no marijuana and panicked so threw pipe out winow so obstruction added on. Other housemates arrested for similar charges , I dont think anyone had any drugs but still charged if any bags found , so they obtained search warrant for empty baggies and paraphernalia thinking we were some large meth dealing operation . After the ones arrested taken to jail the lead cop was heard saying lets rap this up Its almost my lunch time . Apparently only searched half the house and actually left paraphernalia in my room and bongs in nieces room , no actual drugs were found , over 2 years later im still on probation for the empty bag and has cost me over 5000$ in legal fees , bonds , fines etc. Add in my sister and nieces basically same charges family out aprox 15,000$ and still not done paying fines . How can you be arrested in the privacy of your own bedroom for drugs when you had no drugs . I regret not going to trial but ran out of lawler funds and since we bonded out not allowed public defender . Oklahoma and especially Edmond police department are cruel , evil
    And inhumane the way they treat peaple who like to smoke that evil plant MARIJUANA. This is true reefer madness but its the law and justice system who are the madness of it all

  6. Certain jurisdictions in Oklahoma seemed to be obsessed with enforcing Oklahomas unreasonable Marijuana possession laws. I was charged with possession of dangerous controled substance for a empty baggie . They called it a second offence because of a Citation I recieved in Colorado 18 years ago for marijuana possession , which wasn’t even a crime , it was decriminalized so it was an offence , same as a speeding ticket , cost 19$ court cost and no fines . Ok county DA offered 2 year suspended sentence but put off accept ing plea until after SQ 780 and781 were aproved . Don’t know if that made difference but the offered 1 year suspended after election . Wanted to go to trial but ran out of lawler funds , still regretting not going to trial

  7. I wish President Trump would give pardons/releases for all non-violent individuals facing or already serving lengthy prison sentences for possession and/or distribution of marijuana! Its rediculous to continue to prosecute individuals for this and continue to keep incarcerated those already serving time for something about to be legalized by the passing of sq788!

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