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As Oklahomans prepare to head to the polls on Tuesday to vote on recreational marijuana, arguments against the proposal ignore the criminal justice reform elements of the bill. Not only would State Question 820 legalize the possession and purchase of cannabis for adults 21 and over, but it would also expunge certain prior marijuana-related offenses.
Years after the state legalized the most progressive medical cannabis industry in the country, voters are deciding whether to remove the final barriers to those seeking the natural herb. Yet on the eve of the vote, a chorus of conservatives have launched a last-minute effort to dismantle the proposal.
At a hastily organized and lightly-attended gathering of mostly melanin-deprived elderly Oklahomans at the State Capitol Monday morning, former Republican Gov. Frank Keating said he doesn’t want voters “to open the floodgates to a substance as destructive to the health, wealth and welfare as the recreational legalization of marijuana.”
Holding signs that read “Protect Our Kids No 820,” opponents of the measure sought to take Oklahomans back to the days of Reefer Madness, when marijuana was seen as a dangerous substance that racists thought caused otherwise respectable White women to socialize with Black and Hispanic men.
In reality, cannabis is considered far less harmful than alcohol, which causes roughly 140,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health. If passed, the herb would not be legal for anyone under 21 to consume or purchase.
Oklahoma Attorney General gives verbal support to expunging certain marijuana-related convictions
Yet for some, long-held beliefs are difficult to change. Newly elected Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond told media outlets he doesn’t want to see marijuana become legalized at the Tulsa Press Club on Friday, March 3.
Drummond said that while he doesn’t care who smokes, he fears a recreational marijuana industry would contribute to the increasingly violent black market.
While it’s unclear whether the closely-watched state question will pass on Tuesday, Drummond offered some words of encouragement to criminal justice reformers.
The Black Wall Street Times asked Drummond if he would work with the legislature to create a system of record expungement for prior marijuana-related offenses should the proposal fail to pass.
“This thought crossed my head when Gov. Stitt said he smoked pot in college. And I thought, what if he had been arrested? His life would’ve taken a different path,” Drummond told The Black Wall Street Times.
He acknowledged that offenders who come from privileged backgrounds can easily get those records expunged while low-income and BIPOC Oklahomans often face barriers to education, employment and housing long after a minor conviction.
“If it does not pass, I do think in the spirit of criminal justice reform, marijuana possession and consumption should be addressed. And there should be a mechanism considered by the legislature that I’m happy to administer toward the expungement of those things.”
Polls open Tuesday, March 7
Beyond legalizing the possession of up to eight ounces of cannabis, SQ 820 would reduce penalties for simple marijuana possession, prevent revocation of probation or parole for minor offenses, and prevent law enforcement from using suspected marijuana possession as a pretext to stop and search drivers.
In a state that arrests Black men at a rate five times higher than Whites for marijuana possession, according to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, SQ 820 would reduce the kinds of encounters with law enforcement that often lead to arrest or worse.
Perhaps most importantly, it would make these criminal justice reform measures retroactive. People serving sentences for minor marijuana offenses would be resentenced, and people with prior records would have them expunged.
For Damion Shade, executive director of Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform, the answer is clear.
“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,” he said.
Polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7. To find your polling place, click here.