OK: Could Oklahoma cash in on alternative sentencing & decriminalization of marijuana OKCNews/ Scott Cooper / 05,12,2010 For 30 years of his nearly half-century medical practice, Dr. Charles Shaw (right) has seen the worst of the worst with drug addiction. A 1961 doctoral graduate from the University of Oklahoma, Shaw has treated everything from the cocaine junkie in Arizona to the meth addict in Kentucky. When it came to marijuana use, the doctor kept to the same prescription of treating the drug as an illegal substance. Then he came back to Oklahoma. “I’ve had mixed feelings about this over 20 years,” Shaw confessed. “At this point and time, I think it ought to be decriminalized. I think those people who have been put in jail for the sale of only marijuana should be let out.” If that seems radical — and in Oklahoma, that’s a good guess — here is the Saint Anthony Hospital addictionologist’s remedy for legalizing pot: “It should be sold only by the state in state-owned marijuana stores, and that’s they way I would handle it.” That type of talk would get Darrell Weaver (right) spinning out of his desk chair and racing toward the state Capitol to stop any attempt at legalizing pot. As head of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, Weaver has more than two decades of experience that tell him marijuana leads to one thing. “A slippery slope,” Weaver said. “I’ve been at this 23 years. I never interviewed anyone that I remember that did not say they started with marijuana. They all started with marijuana. “To think that if we legalize it and all the problems go away, I don’t agree with that at all. I think it creates problems.” But there is one current problem legalization advocates believe could be treated: the state’s budget woes. With a billion-dollar gap, state government is facing severe cuts to services that aid drug treatment programs, possibly creating more substance abuse problems for municipalities. As lawmakers look at new streams of revenue, a tax on marijuana, which does exist in state law, could bring a pot of gold. Tough on weed Oklahoma’s history with marijuana is as familiar as its history with tornadoes. Oklahoma is notorious for having some of the best land for growing pot and some of the harshest penalties. A 2002 report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center highlights Oklahoma’s prevalence for marijuana. The report titled “Oklahoma Drug Threat Assessment” states that marijuana is “readily available and commonly abused throughout Oklahoma.” A 1982 article from Time magazine reported the state’s marijuana harvest netted $350 million. Today, some reports nearly triple that figure. Eastern Oklahoma is prime real estate for growing pot. The terrain and climate give growers ample camouflage and natural resources needed to cultivate the crop. It is also where some of the biggest drug busts in state history have occurred. One of those busts took place less than two weeks ago when authorities seized more than 32,000 plants in Nowata County, an area northeast of Tulsa. The plants were found on public hunting grounds. “In my district, they have eradication searches constantly,” said state Sen. Richard Lerblance, D-Hartshorne, whose district encompasses four eastern counties. “It’s a very green, leafy product; it grows wild.” But Weaver believes the state’s abundance of pot crops is due to more than just fertile soil. “There were moonshine stills at one time. Then they went to marijuana,” he said. “It’s because there are groups and families of people that have passed it on. It’s just like the trade of masonry.” Oklahoma is also a great destination and transport area for marijuana. Because of the interstate highways that cross it, the state is one of the best ways of getting pot to other regions of the country. This is due in large part because half of the marijuana bought and sold in the United States comes from Mexico. “Mexican drug trafficking organizations use Oklahoma as a trans-shipment point for marijuana because of the state’s central location, well-developed transportation infrastructure and proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border,” according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. It is just one of the reasons why the state has some of the toughest laws concerning marijuana. For years, reports and news articles have listed the Sooner State among the top when it comes to strict laws and harsh penalties on the use and possession of pot. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, an organization dedicated to legalizing marijuana, said Oklahoma falls into a particular group of states. “Generally speaking, if the country’s cannabis laws were divided into, say, four tiers, Oklahoma would, from NORML’s point of view, be in the tier with the harshest cannabis laws and least politically tolerant environment for reform,” St. Pierre said. “Heck, even Texas has reformed their cannabis laws to a degree, now allowing police to issue a fine for possession, rather then engage in the expensive, full-blown introduction into the criminal justice system via arrest, prosecution and possible incarceration.” In 1999, punitive sentencing reforms were enacted to reduce prison overcrowding in a bill signed by then-Gov. Frank Keating. The new law increased incarceration time for violent offenders, mandating serving at least 85 percent of their sentence before parole. The reform measure also developed a new system for nonviolent criminals. Community-based programs like drug rehabilitation and work programs became the emphasis. Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, who voted for the reform bill back in 1999, stands by his decision. “I haven’t seen rampant growth in the prison population since the 1990s,” Coffee said. “We’re getting them into halfway houses now. The Legislature fixed the problem in 1999. This argument that prison is full of first-time dope users is a myth.” Weaver agrees. “I would argue you would have (to) look very hard and drill very deep for anybody that is incarcerated in our state system that has solely been a one- or two-time offender of possession of marijuana. I don’t think that person exists.” Under current law, a person convicted of their second marijuana possession offense becomes a felon and could serve between two and 10 years in prison. Whether the person was caught with hundreds of cannabis plants or just a few pot seeds in an ashtray, the sentence kicks in. Lerblance believes it’s time for more reform. “Here we are with a budget shortfall and the Department of Corrections is at 71 percent occupancy as far as guards,” Lerblance said. “And we continue to increase punishment, make new crimes, extend length on crimes. You don’t get rid of this problem by just locking people up.” In the past, the senator and criminal defense attorney introduced legislation that would have reduced the 85-percent rule and expanded the popular drug courts. Neither garnered the support of his colleagues. This legislative session, Lerblance tried to get a bill through that would have reduced a second marijuana offense to a misdemeanor if the amount of pot possessed was less than one ounce. It made it through the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, but was soundly defeated by the full Senate. “It’s a bipartisan issue,” said Lerblance, who admitted he was surprised the bill made it that far. “As many Democrats voted against it as Republicans.” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater (right) doesn’t have a problem with the proposal. “The situation we have economically in Oklahoma right now, the low level marijuana offenders are not the people we need to be sending to prison, anyway,” Prater said. “We need to be spending our money on those offenders that we must absolutely incarcerate and to sequester from the rest of society.” Growing numbers It is uncertain how many Oklahoma prisoners are locked up just based on marijuana, but there is clear certainty it is filling up local jails. In 2008, just fewer than 10,000 arrests were made for pot possession. It comprised 55 percent of the total drug abuse arrests, and was second for all arrests behind drunkenness. Nearly 15,000 arrests were made for driving under the influence, but that includes drivers high on pot. Since 2002, the number of pot possession arrests increased by more than 1,000, which could lead to as many as 365,000 additional occupied jail beds in a single year. Males are the prevalent pot-using gender, getting arrested four times more than females. In 2000, 57 percent of all males arrested in Oklahoma City tested positive for marijuana. The reforms from a decade ago may have helped level off the prison population, but local officials are finding the new laws have done nothing to relieve their cell space. “We have significant marijuana cases in this office, misdemeanor and felony,” Prater said. “A huge number.” Texas recently changed its marijuana laws to require that a person possess at least 4 ounces before facing a felony charge, and at least 2 ounces to be locked up for a year. Anything less than 2 ounces, and the penalty is a $2,000 fine with maximum jail time of six months. Lerblance would like to try something similar in Oklahoma, but knows his chances are slim. “This state needs to take a look at all of our drug sentencing statutes, but it will be a cold day in hell when that happens,” he said. Officials agree that drug courts are one unanimous solution. Started in 1995 in Payne County, drug courts serve as a last vestige for a chronic drug user to rehabilitate before a future in prison. With 36 drug courts currently around the state, the system may be facing its toughest challenge, stemming from tremendous growth of 200 percent from 2005 to 2009, not to mention pending budget cuts. More than 3,500 offenders entered drug court between 2001 and 2005, with 63 percent less likely to be re-arrested once completing the program than those who did standard probation. The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which operates the drug courts, claimed a savings to the Department of Corrections of more than $87 million from 2001 to 2005. But even with its success, Prater has concerns. The program is set up to help those who are facing their third or fourth drug offense and looking at possible prison sentences. He would like to see the state mandate drug treatment after the first offense. “If the state would mandate drug treatment for first- and second-time drug offenders, we don’t get to a point where we have a 30-year addict on his fourth or fifth felony offense where he is going to prison if he doesn’t go to drug court,” he said. “He will have an extremely difficult time coming off the substances his body is used to having in it.” Weaver said he supports drug courts, but believes a line needs to be drawn. “If we put everyone in prison who had a drug issue, this state would go broke,” he said. “But my major point is, how do we develop personal responsibility within those people? If they don’t change, and time and time again they keep getting onto the road high, they keep stealing, somebody is going to get hurt.” Prater fears putting more pot users in prison may happen if the state follows through with mental health department cuts. “Not only are you going to have more people going to prison, but you are going to have people go to prison who will get back out and re-offend,” Prater said. “People in drug court get their children back, many are gainfully employed, they are no longer having substance abuse.” Drug money It’s not just that Oklahoma has an abundance of marijuana growers and users, but the money associated with the drug could wipe out any budget deficit. According to law enforcement officials and reports, the street value of pot seized in Oklahoma ranges from $500 to $4,000 a pound. Homegrown weed has more value because it tends to have a higher drug quality than marijuana shipped in from Mexico. DrugScience.org estimated Oklahoma’s marijuana production value averaged more than $73 million per year between 2003 and 2005. The value of pot, either as a recreational, medicinal or revenue-enhancing product, is driving the state of California a step closer to total legalization. Californians will vote on the matter this November. Advocates argue taxing the sale of marijuana could help the state dig out of its budget deficit, which exceeds $20 billion. Weaver said if Oklahoma ever made a move to legalize marijuana for such a purpose, it would be making a pact with Satan. “We could say we need money so, as I put it, sell your soul to the devil,” he said. “We will go ahead and start taxing all these drugs. But what are the long-term public safety consequences?” Polls show the initiative has support to win the vote in California. And in Oklahoma, there is support to at least consider the idea. A survey conducted by SoonerPoll.com found that 54.4 percent of Oklahomans support voting on the issue of physician-prescribed medical marijuana use. SoonerPoll.com’s vice president Keith Gaddie said that should not be interpreted as an endorsement. “There are two motives to put it on the ballot,” Gaddie said. “One is to put it on to approve it; the other is to settle the issue by voting it down. “You look at medicinal marijuana like a prohibition vote. It’s not that you have the votes to overturn prohibition; it’s that the public is willing to consider the issue and willing to express their opinion on it.” Gone to pot While officials agree on drug courts, medical marijuana is another story. There are several studies that support both sides of the argument. “We’ve got all these drugs out there to help people get through certain issues,” Weaver said. “We’ve got pharmaceutical companies that spend billions of dollars on research to find the next great drug. Marijuana, I’m not convinced there’s much research that goes in that.” Shaw admits marijuana is a powerful drug that could do more damage than tobacco, citing research that concludes four marijuana joints equal a pack of cigarettes. But he still differs from Weaver’s position. “There are 400 different drugs in marijuana,” Shaw said. “They have been trying for years to isolate these. They feel like there are some worthwhile drugs in it, if they can just get them out. “It has definitely proven there is medication to it. It helps with nausea and vomiting, especially for people getting treatment for cancer. It helps stimulate appetite for people with AIDS. Those are some of the medicinal purposes.” All sides agree pot is a gateway drug that can lead to usage of more powerful drugs, like cocaine and meth. And even the doctor knows of marijuana’s harmful affects, such as loss of perception and motor function. But Shaw believes if marijuana became legal, the gateway would close because users would no longer be at the mercy of drug dealers who can provide access to more powerful stimulants. “You have to go back and compare it to alcohol. When they said ‘no more alcohol,’ what happened was they had all these bootleggers and the crime that came from that,” he said. “Once it was made legal, all that went away. There were no more people drinking than before.” Still, don’t look for a marijuana bakery in Bricktown any time soon.