Oklahoma took a big step last week toward recovery from the so-called “war on drugs.” The Pardon and Parole Board recommended 527 commutations of sentences for persons serving prison time for simple drug possession or minor property crimes. Of those, 462 are expected to be released today. All this was the result of SQ 780 passed in 2016 that changed simple possession from a felony to a misdemeanor along with legislation in the last session that gave the people’s vote a form of retroactivity allowing the sentences to be commuted.
President Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1969 directed toward “eradication, interdiction, and incarceration.” For the past 50 years, a combination of harsh laws, indiscriminate prosecution policies, and lavish spending on law enforcement has created an era of mass incarceration with devastating consequences for individuals, families, and communities. There will be lasting results that won’t be easy to reverse.
It has all been well intended. Anyone who has experienced addiction, either personally or in their family, knows the dreadful effect of substance abuse on lives. Trying to stop the carnage is necessarily a top priority. But passing and enforcing laws with harsh penalties for possessing or selling drugs became the primary response for state and federal policymakers. It was not well understood until the past decade or so that addiction is a disease needing treatment rather than punishment, and even now there remains strong resistance from some for adequate mental health funding and rolling back harsh drug laws. Most if not all the state’s district attorneys and many in law enforcement opposed SQ 780 and were opposed making it retroactive.
Well intended as it was, the damage done by the war on drugs to our society is incalculable. Broadly written drug laws intended to incarcerate “king pin”-type dealers have been used to give lengthy sentences to small time dealers trying to feed their drug habit. People have pled guilty to long sentences for “possession with intent to distribute” when they possessed small quantities, sometimes just “traces” of drugs, because the alternative was to face the risk of a life sentence by going to trial. Court rulings have narrowed Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights to allow into evidence drugs or statements about drugs.
The next chapter for those being released won’t be easy. A percentage may have mental health or substance use issues, and most will face challenges just reentering civil society. They will need jobs, places to live, and the social safety net to bring their lives to normality. Look for opponents of reform to be on the lookout for every failure. With these recent changes, 462 Oklahomans have a shot at a new life due to the wisdom of their neighbors who voted for SQ 780 and to legislators who voted to make right some wrongheaded war-on-drug policies from the past.