Changes to Oklahoma’s drug laws reduce criminal charges and prison sentences

Oklahoma’s recent success in reducing our prison population is hard won. Sentencing reforms passed by voters in 2016 and by the Legislature in 2018 have contributed to a 23% drop in the prison population since it peaked in 2016. Though much remains to be done, the Oklahoma Policy Institute has been tracking the effects of justice reform in courts, jails, and prisons as reforms have taken hold and found a steady move towards a less punitive approach to offenses like drug possession and burglary.  

This post examines reforms to another set of common criminal offenses and their effects on Oklahomans. Senate Bill 793, passed in 2018, addressed the state’s high incarceration rate of  Oklahomans convicted of drug crimes; the same year, State Question 788 legalized medical marijuana and directly and indirectly reduced punishments for many marijuana-related offenses. These two measures have reduced incarceration rates, which will stimulate the economy by keeping people in the workforce and helping keep families together. Immediate impacts of these reforms include common-sense reductions in harsh sentence lengths for certain drug charges, as well as the legalization of medical marijuana. Court data indicate that after SB 793 took effect, charges of possession with intent to distribute decreased substantially statewide, and these reductions were likely also due in part to the passage of SQ 788.

Senate Bill 793 reduced some of Oklahoma’s harsh drug crime sentencing practices

The legislature showed a commitment to criminal justice reform by approving SB 793 in 2018. This bill reduced the punishment for transporting and possessing with intent to distribute a dangerous controlled substance. Previously, an individual living in Oklahoma could receive between five years to life in prison for a Schedule I or II drug. As a result of SB 793, Oklahomans can no longer receive life sentences for this crime, and the maximum sentence is seven years. The measure also removed the option of life without parole for a drug trafficking charge. Since Oklahoma prison sentences for these and other drug crimes are 79 percent longer than the national average, these reforms will help reduce the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes in Oklahoma. Research shows that incarceration for nonviolent crimes often does not achieve its intended goal of rehabilitation; rather, it makes people more likely to commit another crime after release. These reforms build on SQ 780, passed by voters in 2016, ensuring no one newly convicted of simple drug possession receives a prison sentence.

SQ 788’s legalization of medical marijuana brought dramatic changes to laws around the drug

Passed in June 2018, SQ 788 legalized medical marijuana and took effect in August of that year. SQ 788 made acquiring a medical marijuana license a possibility for many Oklahomans and dramatically changed possession of marijuana laws. Now, the penalty for someone carrying a small amount of marijuana without a medical marijuana license, but who can state a medical condition, is just a misdemeanor charge and a fine. Because this law does not specify a quantity of marijuana in determining between simple possession (a misdemeanor) and possession with intent to distribute (a felony), the line between the two charges often depends on the judgment of the prosecutor on the case. Nevertheless, the legalization of medical marijuana and relaxation of drug possession laws around marijuana likely influenced prosecutors’ decisions towards fewer felony charges after SQ 788 took effect.

Additionally, SQ 788 outlines guidelines for the application process of a medical marijuana license. As of January 5, 2021, there are more than 379,590 Oklahomans with an active medical marijuana license, with more applications submitted every day. As more Oklahomans gain access to medical marijuana, incarceration rates are decreasing for marijuana-related offenses. 

SB 793 led to a sharp reduction in charges filed for possession with intent to distribute 

OK Policy analyzed the downward trend for possession with intent to distribute and trafficking cases to determine the impacts of SB 793 and SQ 788. Our analysis found that both measures likely contributed to the reduction since the measures significantly overlap both in content and when they were implemented. Compared to the year prior to November 2018 when SB 793 took effect, possession with intent to distribute charges decreased statewide by about 76 cases per month, or roughly 29 percent.

SB 793 also caused a reduction in prison sentences 

The number of prison sentences for possession with intent to distribute charges has significantly decreased, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections from January 1, 2017 to February 29, 2020. This was to be expected due to the drop in the number of these charges being filed, as described above. Compared to the previous year after reforms in 2018, the number of people sentenced to prison for possession with intent to distribute decreased on average by about 29 cases per month, or roughly 22 percent. As with the trend in the number of cases filed, the timing of the reduction aligns better with the implementation of SB 793 than with SQ 788, but both reforms likely contributed to the decrease. There was not a significant change in the number of individuals sentenced to prison for trafficking charges after the implementation of either reform.

These justice reform efforts are helping reduce prison and jail populations

At the beginning of 2018, Oklahoma prisons incarcerated more men and women per capita than any other state in the U.S, which harmed families, disrupted the economy, and strained the state budget. In recent years, criminal justice reform efforts have begun to reverse this trend. Justice reform is crucial to the future of Oklahoma. With drug reforms like SQ 793 and SB 788, fewer people are becoming involved with the justice system, thus preventing the next generation from continuing the cycle of incarceration.  This measurable success should be encouraging for reform advocates who want to push for sentencing reform during the 2021 legislative session.


About the Author

Liz-Spencer-Fall-2020-150x150Liz Spencer, Open Justice Oklahoma Intern – Liz is a senior at the University of Oklahoma studying Management Information Systems, with her main focus being in data analytics. Her areas of political interest include promoting legislation for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW), Oklahoma’s incarceration policies, and violence against women.


Oklahoma Policy Insititute (OK Policy) advances equitable and fiscally responsible policies that expand opportunity for all Oklahomans through non-partisan research, analysis, and advocacy.

3 thoughts on “Changes to Oklahoma’s drug laws reduce criminal charges and prison sentences

  1. Can you tell me if there is anyone working being on the excessive fines for those who have been incarcerated. My granddaughter celebrated her one year one day today post incarceration. She was 18 when incarcerated and 21 when released. She just graduated from her Sober Living program. She is working, has her license, has a car, trying to complete her education and paying off $10,000 dollars of fines. There in lies my question. Is anyone looking at the excessive fines prisoners face on being released. If my granddaughter did not have me and her aunt I know things would be far more difficult today. I would be glad to help in any way I can to look at this issue. Thank You Linda Gray 918-991-0421

  2. The focus in this piece appears to be on reducing the state’s incarceration numbers, not through interventions to change the behaviors of those being incarcerated, but by letting those who are and will be incarcerated forego that experience by just giving them a pass and letting them continue to engage in those behaviors that result in incarceration.

    I do not read of any new information being presented by the author as incarceration has always had less-than-positive impact on families and spouses and children of those incarcerated and this has been known for a long period of time. What has also been known is that bad individual choices lead to bad individual outcomes.

    My information is that those would have previously been charged and sent to trial pre-state question passage, depending upon the offense, now receive the equivalent of a traffic ticket but never appear in municipal court. How does this benefit either the one charged or the State?

    Referencing a link cited by the author “…Anticipating fewer prison receptions for drug possession, SQ 781 directs the cost savings from SQ 780 to a fund that would be distributed to counties to provide mental health and substance abuse services. …” what has this fund bought the state of Oklahoma? How are those needing mental health and substance abuse services identified? These are two questions that merit some research and an article.

    What I can conclude from the piece is that Oklahoma can claim a lowering crime rate not because of lives changed such that those formerly incarcerated now have a new behavior set that keeps them from the old ways and their former bad company but because those activities are no longer counted and therefore no longer roll into the total crime rate count. What progress!

    All of that aside, I do believe that our Native American population has gotten the short shrift in their treatment since the first treaties with the government were written. And within that population I wonder if the female members are still subject to the violence that is swept under the carpet. Regarding the treatment of our Native American population, Angie Debo wrote much on this topic.

  3. I think every situation is do different my son was sober for 11 years raising 3children great job in union and lost his dad suddenly took time from work and did some stupid stuff and is looking at a long time in jail the children are the ones that will now suffer cause know he is good again but it still mean him leaving them again for many years. He knows that it was wrong and these kids need there dad cause they don’t have a mother she is absent SO 1 MISTAKE SHOULD NOT TAKE HIM FROM HIS KIDS PLEASE HELP REDUCE THE LONG SENTENCING AND KEEP THE FAMILIES TOGETHER

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.