The success of SQ 780 points Oklahoma to a better response to drug addiction (Capitol Updates)

handcuffs and keySteve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

Of the four state questions that passed last Tuesday, the one that will yield the most direct and positive impact on the lives of real people, including many young people, is State Question 780. SQ 780 changes to misdemeanors the penalties for simple possession of controlled substances and low level property crimes. Most misdemeanors are punishable by up to 1 year in the county jail and a fine. All the alternatives such as deferred or suspended sentences, including treatment, restitution and community service, are available with misdemeanor charges.

So many of the challenges we face today have been around for years, and our policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches have just not been able to agree upon and implement solutions. When substance use became popular among many people, we chose to criminalize the behavior as the best way to control it. We’re not the first generation to try prohibition. One problem with prohibition is that it makes the illegal activity extremely profitable as a business for those willing to violate the law. Legislatures, law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, and corrections officials deal with the affront by doubling down on penalties all the way up to life in prison.

To take away the market we also created harsh penalties for possession, making felons out of people who in other ways are law abiding citizens. Once a person starts using an addictive substance, it can be hard to stop without help, no matter the consequences. People with alcohol and nicotine addiction can tell you that. The criminal justice system has been spectacularly inefficient as a way of getting people help for their addictions. If it does finally work, it’s usually only after the person has acquired a criminal record that severely limits his future.

My hope is that the politics of this issue will change as the result of the people’s vote on SQ 780. There was a time when any suggestion of different alternatives for drug violations seemed improbable, if not the kiss of political death. The question is whether legislators, law enforcement and DAs will follow the people’s lead. Many of them have invested a lot of their lives in catching and punishing. It’s hard for them to consider that it may be possible to achieve better outcomes at less cost and less human misery. These are professionals that our communities respect. They can use their considerable influence to lead us in a better direction.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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