Criminal justice reforms were voted in overwhelmingly in November. The months since have been anything but kind to the little state questions that could.
The reforms — State Questions 780 and 781— go into effect in July and reclassify drug possession — what proponents referred to as “personal use amounts” of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, PCP, or heroin — into misdemeanor crimes rather than felonies and provides funding for drug treatment programs.
Since that vote last year, it has been one fight after the other. State Sen. Ralph Shortey, a Republican from Oklahoma City, filed a bill last month that would have essentially reversed SQ 780. Shortey’s bill was roundly criticized as going against the will of voters, and Shortey himself was criticized for claiming that voters didn’t understand what SQ 780 actually did.
Shortey eventually withdrew his bill, but that didn’t end the attempts to mitigate the effects of the new law.
The latest effort is House Bill 1482, proposed by State Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha. Similar to Shortey’s proposal, it would, by virtue of instituting “proximity modifiers,” neuter the changes made by SQ 780, critics of the plan say.
Those modifiers would make it a felony to possess personal use amounts of drugs within 1,000 feet of “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 years of age,” according to the proposed legislation.
A Tulsa group interested in the effects of that proposed law took it upon themselves to see how much of the city fell within 1,000 feet of one of those landmarks. The result was that under HB 1482, most of the city would become a felonious zone for drug possession.
“It’s a full-out slap in the face to the voters of Oklahoma in reference to trying to stop their will pertaining to corrections reform being implemented,” said Kris Steele, chairman of Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform.
Steele, the former Oklahoma Speaker of the House, led the charge for SQ 780 and 781.
“The politics of this are that they’re using schoolchildren to sensationalize, or as a political pawn to ultimately usurp the will of the people,” Steele said.
Did voters read the fine print?
Shortey was perhaps only the first person to publicly voice his belief that voters were misled, or didn’t truly understand the effects of SQ 780. He told the Oklahoman newspaper in February that “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.”
The wording of the state questions was hotly contested, and SQ 780 was eventually settled by the Oklahoma Supreme Court after it ruled that proposed language submitted by SQ 780 proponents, and by former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, was “insufficient.”
The final language on the ballot did not specify that all drugs would be classified as misdemeanors under the new law, nor did it name any specific drug in the text. Instead, it referred only to “possession of a limited quantity of drugs” or “certain drug possession crimes.”
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, a chief opponent of SQ 780, told The Frontier this week that he agrees with Shortey’s assessment that voters did not understand what they were voting into law.
“The litmus test I would go through would be to ask someone, ‘What drugs do you think 780 made a misdemeanor?’” he said. “I would venture every person I’ve talked to has said ‘marijuana.’”
With the seemingly innocuous ballot language in place, a large public relations campaign was waged prior to the vote, something Kunzweiler credits with swaying voters who “had the wool pulled over their eyes.”
Ballotpedia.org, a website that tracks legislation and its supporters and opponents, also lists financial support for campaign spending. When it comes to SQ 780, money spent to support the bill ($4,727,620) dwarfed money raised to oppose it ($4,290).
“What you realize is they had a slick public information campaign and a lot of out-of-state money,” Kunzweiler said. “We didn’t have a budget like they did.”
The Ballotpedia website shows more than $3 million dollars was donated to the SQ 780 campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“That’s the ruse of what I call Kris Steele’s folly,” Kunzweiler said. “I get that the public voted for it. But I’d like to sit in a room full of Oklahomans who really believe that all drug possession should be a misdemeanor. I’d bet that’s a pretty small group.”
Steele, unsurprisingly, disagrees. Voters, he said, knew what they were voting for and ultimately decided that treatment was a more effective option for offenders than incarceration.
“The research is clear: The last thing we want to do is take a young person who may be experimenting with drug use and turn them into a felon for life,” Steele said. “It’s a much better, and more efficient use of time and money to take that person and treat them and stop the drug use there than to incarcerate them.”
How much of Tulsa would be affected by HB 1482?
Code For Tulsa, a local group of web and app developers, may not be thought of as being overtly political in its day-to-day work. But Carlos Moreno, the “co-captain” at Code For Tulsa, said he sees the group’s mission as “connecting citizens to their government.”
So when he read about HB 1482, and all of the areas — schools, parks, colleges, churches, daycares, etc. — that would become felony areas under the proposed law, he wanted to know how much of Tulsa would fall into those zones.
“You think of Tulsa and there are churches everywhere, and there are daycares and parks all over the place,” he said. “When we built the map it really confirmed what we assumed – that the most populous areas of the city would fall into those zones where drug possession would become a felony.”
The map he designed, color coded for each of the felony zones proposed in HB 1482, shows large swaths of Tulsa painted green, orange or pink.
“If you look at the map, it’s like all of Brookside is covered, all of downtown is covered, all of Cherry Street is covered,” Moreno said. “It’s really just the rural areas that would not be affected, which is ridiculous. You’re targeting where all of the people are.”
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform created a similar map last month that covered the Oklahoma City area, and Steele said he was not surprised by what the two maps show.
“What you have is a clever way of basically erasing the law that voters voted for,” he said. “Legislators have attempted to once again turn simple possession into a felony, which is what their goal is.
“Certain legislators don’t seem to want to acknowledge the will of the voters.”
Steele said proponents of HB 1482 use schools as a way to “fearmonger” voters.
“They paint this picture of (SQ 780) allowing drug dealers into schools,” he said. “And that’s simply not true.”
Intent to distribute drugs remains a felony and is not affected by SQ 780. However, Kunzweiler argues that proving intent to distribute can be harder than it sounds. It can take more than just the amount of drugs distributed to convince a jury someone intends to deal, Kunzweiler said.
“I don’t think Kris understands how these guys operate,” Kunzweiler said. “They’re not going to go into a school with baggies and scales. Who wants to have someone walk into a school with 19 grams of methamphetamines and we can only charge them with a misdemeanor? The spirit of the law is well-intentioned, but who wants people going into school with drugs?”
Kunzweiler also said he fears the drug reforms will be “the death knell” of drug treatment programs.
“They way it works are these treatment programs are 18 months and they require work, they require you to show up and work to pass the program,” he said. “When the harshest sentence we can impose on a drug offender is a year in the county jail, why would someone sign up for 18 months of work when they can just sit in jail for a year?”
Steele, in response, said the voters “have spoken.”
“We all care about the safety of children,” he said. “We took all of that into account, and more. We fully vetted the issue, we posted the reforms in their entirety on the Secretary of State and (Oklahoma) Supreme Court websites for nearly a year. We fully discussed these laws in 100 or so town halls across the state and the voters have spoken. It’s time people respected that.”
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