Oklahoma Shenanigans (Or: What’s the Point of Democracy?)
Did you know that under current law, getting caught with any amount of marijuana in Oklahoma can earn you one year in jail?
Did you know that your second offense for any amount of marijuana possession in Oklahoma earns you a felony with 2 to 10 years in prison?
Did you know that because of that, there was a major ballot initiative that passed in Oklahoma in the last election that de-felonized personal possession of all drugs?
Well, apparently, neither does the Oklahoma legislature, which is working on a bill to re-felonize drug possession.
Can someone tell me why we bother voting on these initiatives? What’s the point of direct citizen democracy if the lawmakers are just going to disregard the will of the people?
At issue is Oklahoma’s State Question 780. In the 2016 election, this initiative passed with 58 percent of the vote. When Oklahomans went to the polls, this is the description they were given for Question 780:
“This measure amends existing Oklahoma laws and would change the classification of certain drug possession and property crimes from felony to misdemeanor. It would make possession of a limited quantity of drugs a misdemeanor. The amendment also changes the classification of certain drug possession crimes which are currently considered felonies and cases where the defendant has a prior drug possession conviction. The proposed amendment would reclassify these drug possession cases as misdemeanors.”
That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? Simply possessing drugs would go from a felony to a misdemeanor. Nearly 6-in-10 Oklahomans agreed.
But the wise legislators in Oklahoma’s state house know better than the ignorant voters, it seems. Rep. Scott Biggs, a Republican, put forth House Bill 1482, the sympathetically-named “Keep Oklahoma Children Safe from Illegal Drugs Act of 2017,” to undo what State Question 780 had accomplished.
Originally, the legislature sought to not only re-felonize drug possession, but to increase that first offense from a crime with one year in jail to a felony with five years in prison, if drugs are possessed “within one thousand (1,000) feet of the real property comprising a day care, public or private elementary or secondary school, public vocational school, public or private college or university, or other institution of higher education, church, recreation center or public park, including state parks, fairgrounds and recreation areas, or in the presence of any child under twelve (12) years of age.”
Can you believe this? The people of Oklahoma saw a ballot initiative that said “make possession of a limited quantity of drugs a misdemeanor” and by a large margin agreed. There was no location specified in that initiative, but now the legislature wants that misdemeanor to be contingent on being far away from cities, state parks, and kids.
During debate on State Question 780, Rep. Biggs added an amendment that softened the location requirements on not being a drug felon. It deletes the portion about “a day care” and “public or private college or universities, other institutions of higher education, churches, recreation centers, public parks, state parks, fairgrounds, and recreation areas.” Imposition of the felony “may” be considered instead of “shall” be imposed. The fines for first and second offenses were halved and the minimum amount of time served before consideration of good behavior leads to early release.
That amended bill passed, so now the Oklahoma Senate is considering whether to make felons out of people who possess drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or in the presence of a kid 12 or under.
The author of the bill explained that when the people of Oklahoma voted on State Question 780, they were ignorant simpletons that didn’t understand the extent of what they were voting on. Rep. Biggs said, “I believe there is a large group of voters that didn’t understand that this state question would essentially decriminalize drugs in schools, parks and playgrounds.”
What part of “make possession of a limited quantity of drugs a misdemeanor” is the “essentially decriminalize” part? Under Oklahoma law, “Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by this chapter or by some existing provisions of law, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, or both such fine and imprisonment.”
Rep. Forrest Bennett, a Democrat, called out Rep. Biggs for his low opinion of Oklahoma voters. “House Bill 1482 sends the message that, ‘hey voters, we see what you decided. We don’t care,’” said Bennett. “It says ‘we know you voted for this, but we don’t believe you were intelligent enough to understand what you voted for.’”
Exactly. This phenomenon, by the way, isn’t limited to Oklahoma. When it comes to the people voting on measures to reduce penalties for drugs, state legislators all across the country think voters are idiots who cannot read.
Oregon passed its Measure 91 marijuana legalization requiring a vote of the people to ban marijuana licenses. Oregon legislators changed that so pot-hating rural counties didn’t have to hold votes to ban.
Maine passed its Question 1 legalizing the possession of 2.5 ounces of marijuana products. Maine legislators want to reduce possession of concentrate to 5 grams. They also want to delay the introduction of their commercial licensing program.
Massachusetts passed its Question 4 to allow adults 21 and older to grow a dozen cannabis plants at home or shop at stores at a low tax rate designed to compete with the illicit market. Massachusetts legislators are considering reducing the plant count, raising the tax, and making 25 the legal age limit for marijuana. They, too, want to delay the program.
North Dakota passed its Measure 5 to allow smoking of medical marijuana and home growing of medical cannabis by patients living farther than 40 miles from a dispensary. North Dakota legislators want to eliminate smoking and home grow altogether.
Arkansas passed its Issue 6 to allow patients to acquire marijuana to smoke and infused edibles to eat as medicine. Arkansas legislators want to ban marijuana smoking “in any location in Arkansas”, including a leased property, even with landlord’s permission, as well as ban the manufacture and sale of edibles.
Arkansas, like Washington State and a few others, has a restriction on legislative tampering with citizen initiatives, where there must be a two-thirds vote to amend. That needs to be the case in every state with the citizen initiative power. What’s the point of over 800,000 Oklahoma voters voting to reform the law if law enforcement special interests can just buy a few state legislators to undo those reforms with a simple majority?