This post is by OK Policy intern Haley Stritzel. Haley is a University of Tulsa student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies.

Marijuana dispensary next to the Denver police headquarters. Photo by Jeffrey Beall used under a Creative Commons license.

Marijuana dispensary next to the Denver police headquarters. Photo by Jeffrey Beall used under a Creative Commons license.

This session, Senator Connie Johnson has introduced Senate Bill 2166, which would legalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use and the cultivation of up to five marijuana plants. This bill proposes a similar course of action for decriminalizing marijuana as in Colorado and Washington state.  

Even compared to states that have not decriminalized the drug, Oklahoma’s marijuana laws are the harshest in the nation. In Oklahoma, a second offense of possession of any amount of marijuana, including very small amounts for personal use, is a felony punishable by at least 2 years in prison and up to 10 years, with a fine up to $5,000. 

In the vast majority of states, possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use does not constitute a felony. Besides Oklahoma, only Kansas and Wisconsin punish a second offense of possession of any amount of marijuana as a felony. Even then, these states impose less harsh sentences. In Wisconsin, this offense is punishable by up to 3.5 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. A subsequent offense of marijuana possession in Kansas is punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 months to 3.5 years in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000.

Eight states do not consider any possession of marijuana for personal use to be a felony: Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan (with the exception of possession in a park), New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Sen. Johnson has criticized the effects of the harsh punishment in Oklahoma, calling marijuana prohibition a “disaster” that has not effectively reduced access to marijuana. Furthermore, the mass incarceration resulting from these laws drains our state’s resources and limits our citizens’ ability to lead productive lives.

Even after a person completes their prison sentence and pays their fine, a felony conviction continues to create barriers to employment and self-sufficiency throughout their life. In Oklahoma, approximately one in twelve adults (8.2 percent) has a felony conviction.

Felons are significantly less likely to be employed than those without a criminal record. While one may argue that a person with a criminal background may be less likely to look for work or be an undesirable candidate for other reasons, a 2010 report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research suggests that a felony conviction and time in prison act independently to reduce chances for employment. Incarceration leads to a depreciation in formal education and skillsets, as well as a loss of social networks that many people rely on for finding work. In some situations, employers are restricted from hiring felons by law, while other employers may simply be more reluctant to hire someone with a felony conviction. In 2008, loss in employment due to felony convictions cost the US economy between $57 and $65 billion.

These severe sentences also contribute to mass incarceration in Oklahoma. Between FY 2005 and FY 2010, non-violent drug related offenses made up 31 percent of new Oklahoman prison populations . In FY 2009, 27 percent of the 26,397 individuals in prison were incarcerated for drug offenses, compared to 20 percent nationally. In 2012, possession of marijuana made up 49.7 percent of drug violations.

Mass incarceration disproportionately affects black people in Oklahoma: in 2005, black people were incarcerated at an astounding rate of 3,252 per 100,000 people, compared to 740 per 100,000 for whites and 832 per 100,000 for Hispanics. In Oklahoma, black people are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite research showing blacks are not more likely to use marijuana. 

Policy changes in Colorado prior to legalization set a promising example for addressing these issues. After reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, Colorado’s prison population started declining in 2010 and is now dropping at the fastest rate in the country. In 2012, violent crime fell 3.4 percent in Colorado, despite a nationwide increase.

Oklahoma has been going in the opposite direction. State prisons and county jails in Oklahoma are struggling with severe overcrowding, leading to unsanitary conditions, violence among inmates, insufficient staffing, and civil rights violations. In 2013, Oklahoma’s ratio of correctional officers to inmates (11.7 to 1) was one of the worst among the states and over twice the national average (5.5 to 1).

State policymakers must reconsider these harsh sentences for minor drug crimes, especially regarding a substance that even the Deputy Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy admits is safer than alcohol. Oklahoma’s draconian punishments for nonviolent drug offenses overextend our state’s resources at the expense of our citizens’ safety, well-being, and potential. Despite these supposedly “tough-on-crime” measures, Oklahoma has not seen any significant reduction in crime these past few years. In Senator Connie Johnson’s words, “It’s time for a smarter approach.”