Last November, Oklahoma voters approved State Questions 780 and 781 with 58.23 percent and 56.22 percent support, respectively. The bills will go into effect this July. Yet this spring, Oklahoma legislators are putting forth four bills to alter the measures voters approved.
SB 512, SB 256, HB 1482 and SB 398 all alter the State Questions 780 and 781 to differing degrees.
SB 512, proposed by Senator Ralph Shortey (R-Oklahoma City), would most drastically affect the state. State Question 780 made the possession of illegal drugs a misdemeanor and, in addition, those breaking the law pay a fine to the Trauma Care Assistance Revolving Fund. Shortey’s bill, however, would make the possession of any Schedule I or II substance, except marijuana or a substance included in the bill, a felony, with increasing maximum sentences and fines, according to the number of crimes. Schedule I substances include, but are not limited to, LSD, marijuana and ecstasy, while Schedule II includes morphine, opium and codeine.
Only the possession of “Schedule III, IV or V substance, marijuana, a substance included in subsection D of Section 2-206 of this title, or any preparation excepted from the provisions of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act” would be considered a misdemeanor. Products like Vicodin, suboxone and depo-testosterone are considered schedule III substances, while Klonopin, Xanax and valium are considered schedule IV substances. Schedule V drugs include Robitussin AC and phenergan with codeine. In addition, if one possessed any of the misdemeanor drugs during the probationary period or within ten years of the completion of the execution of the sentence or deferred judgment, it would be a felony.
Additionally, anyone possessing or purchasing a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a “public or private elementary or secondary school, public vocational school, public or private college or university, or other institution of higher education, recreation center or public park, including state parks and recreation areas, or in the presence of any child under twelve (12) years of age” would be guilty of a felony. The bill also affects some of the other propositions related to property crime. Shortey’s bill basically revokes any changes the Oklahoma people decided were necessary to the criminal justice system.
SB 256, authored by Senator Michael Bergstrom (R-District 1), while similar to SB 512, does not make comparably severe reversals to the felony/misdemeanor charges. Possession of a controlled substance would only result in a felony conviction if the person had prior convictions under the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act or a misdemeanor regarding Schedule I or II substance, except marijuana or a substance. In addition, this bill would lower the “safe zone” around certain public property to 500 feet. Anyone found guilty would be forced to participate in a drug substance abuse evaluation and assessment program, without the use of state funds.
Representative Biggs’ (R-Chickasha) HB 1482 would only affect possession near certain areas, the same as those listed in Shortey’s bill. Breaking the law would result in either imprisonment or a fine.
Authored by Darcy Jech (R-Kingfisher), SB 398 would make the third and subsequent possession of a drug a felony.
The legislators argue these changes are necessary because voters were unaware of the consequences of their vote. Biggs reported that “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.” Shortey, going even further, said “Nowhere in the state question did it mention what some of those changes were, or the effect of them … People basically did not know exactly how much of the statutes were being changed.”
With these statements, legislators are basically confirming they believe any decision made that disagrees with their philosophy was made in ignorance. Yes, it is more than likely some people did not fully understand the bill or didn’t take the time to read it all the way through, but this situation is not unique to 780/781. Instead, what’s unique is the legislators’ feelings on the subject.
Yes, there are most likely kinks in State Questions 780 and 781 that will need to be amended in the future. For instance, should repeat offenders eventually warrant a felony conviction for their possession of drugs? These should be addressed after implementing the bill so its consequences can be fully realized. The proposed changes, Shortey’s especially, extremely alter the text of the bill to something the voters didn’t vote on.
Some might argue that by changing the bills now, the legislators are preemptively acting to prevent any negative consequences they foresee. However, the election season provides legislators and opponents ample time to convince voters the bills were flawed. The issue of drugs near schools, which is what many seem to be concerned about, could’ve easily been blown up into a fighting point. If the legislators believe they can predict the bill’s flaws before it goes into effect, then surely they could have predicted them before the bill was voted on. And then, if the Oklahoma people were actually concerned with these issues, they would’ve voted no and demanded a rewriting of the bill.
But Oklahoma’s previous methods have not worked. Assigning every drug conviction as a felony has helped the state have the second highest incarceration rate in the country. Oklahoma consistently ranks high in incarceration of women, specifically. This high incarceration rate has led to prison overcrowding and funding issues.
Voters weren’t alone in their support of the State Questions. Governor Mary Fallin, in last year’s State of the State address, supported changes to the justice system such as those proposed in State Question 780. She noted the state’s large prison population and budget issues, as well as highlighting a need for increased rehabilitation efforts. The four legislators proposing these bills have exposed themselves as behind the times.
Completely ignoring the will of voters cannot lead to desirable consequences. Shortey’s defense of his bill — that voters didn’t understand the question — could be extended into other factions of government as well quite easily, weakening the claim that the United States is a representative democracy. If questions are put up to the voters, then their will should be respected. 38 states have limits on how legislators can tamper with initiatives after they’ve been passed. Oklahoma is not one of those states, but it could be. Some states prevent altering an initiative until a certain amount of time has passed or only with the vote of a supermajority in both houses of the legislature. While legislators are unlikely to propose or pass such bills by themselves, having such bills in place would ensure the will of the Oklahoma people is respected. The people could either put enough pressure on legislators to consider such bills or propose a State Question on the topic.