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By Damion Shade, Executive Director, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform
On March 7, I plan on voting yes on State Question 820 — which legalizes recreational marijuana for adults over 21 — for a lot of reasons. Oklahoma can generate nearly half a billion dollars in tax revenue in the next five years if SQ 820 passes.
We can create a reliable, commonsense regulatory framework that ensures the quality and safety of a product that is already being widely used. We can generate thousands of new jobs and economic investment in underserved communities across the state.
I am also voting for SQ 820 because I am a Black Oklahoman who recognizes that the 50 year so-called “war on drugs” has been an abject failure that was deliberately designed to criminalize and target Black communities, and the criminalization of marijuana was a big part of that perverse strategy. Ending Oklahoma’s prohibition on marijuana is an important step towards eliminating racial disparities in this state.
“Black men are nearly five times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white men in Oklahoma”
From 2007 to 2020, Oklahoma law enforcement agencies made 115,536 arrests for marijuana possession, but the consequences of these arrests have not been shared equally among the people of this state. The criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately burdened Black communities in Oklahoma. Despite research demonstrating that people use marijuana at the same rates across all racial groups, Black people in Oklahoma face higher rates of arrests, convictions, and imprisonment for marijuana-related offenses.
According to Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation data, Black men are nearly five times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white men in Oklahoma. A 2020 comprehensive analysis shows that Oklahoma ranks 13th in the nation for the largest racial disparities in arrests for simple marijuana possession. And in some counties the disparities are extreme.
In Pontotoc and Ottawa counties, a Black person is over 13 times more likely to be arrested for minor marijuana possession than a white person. These racial disparities have persisted years after the legalization of medical marijuana.
Simple possession of marijuana is a minor offense, but the repercussions of an arrest or conviction are not. One arrest can lead to jail time and result in an average of $1,800 in court costs and fines. Additionally, one minor marijuana arrest can haunt you for the rest of your life, limiting your ability to provide for your family and achieve a successful life.
One minor marijuana conviction can lead to the denial of school loans, job applications, apartment leases, and even a credit card. Since arrests in Oklahoma for simple possession of marijuana are disproportionately borne by Black Oklahomans, these harsh collateral consequences disproportionately affect Black Oklahomans as well.
SQ 820 would end racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests
State Question 820 advances fairness and justice in three concrete ways: First, it will prevent the unnecessary criminalization of thousands of Oklahomans. It reduces penalties for minor marijuana offenses, prohibits courts from piling on additional fees and fines for minor offenses (a common practice in Oklahoma that has a devastating impact on low income people and their families), eliminates revocations of probation or parole for minor marijuana violations, and prevents law enforcement from using marijuana as a pretense to stop and search that would not otherwise be justified.
Second, State Question 820 protects young people and their families. It protects youth from the harms of marijuana (by strictly limiting youth access) and also from the harms of arrest. Rather than arresting minors if they are caught with marijuana, State Question 820 mandates drug education, counseling, and support.
Additionally, it provides tax revenue to schools to develop alternatives to suspension and expulsion and prohibits the denial of parental rights for minor marijuana-related conduct. All of this is personally important to me as a father. While I certainly do not want my daughter smoking marijuana, I believe that it’s my responsibility to keep her away from marijuana exactly as I have to protect her from alcohol and tobacco. It’s not the government’s role to play parent for me. I am also deeply concerned about my Black daughter having a high stakes confrontation with a police officer or ending up with an arrest record because she happened to be in a car with someone dabbling with pot.
SQ 820 is a game-changer for Oklahoma
Finally, all of the criminal penalty reforms included in State Question 820 are retroactive. People serving sentences for minor conduct will be resentenced and people with prior minor marijuana convictions can have their records expunged. A minor marijuana conviction would no longer serve as a barrier to housing, employment, and education.
Oklahoma has a long history of racially-biased marijuana enforcement that has left staggering numbers of Black Oklahomans with criminal records. Let’s give these Oklahomans a second chance. Vote yes on State Question 820.
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