You may already know that proposals are in the works to change the way that Oklahoma’s criminal laws treat those convicted of “low-level” drug possession (by “low-level” we mean conviction for possession of illegal drugs valued at less than $1,000). The proponents of these proposals, which have secured the number of signatures required to place them on the election ballot, claim that their two main changes to existing law — reducing the penalty for conviction to a misdemeanor, and redirecting anticipated money savings into crime prevention programs — will have multiple benefits, including:
- By reducing the penalty for low-level drug possession to a misdemeanor instead of a felony, those convicted would spend no more than one year in a county jail instead of a longer period in a state penitentiary, thereby saving money and helping to relieve the state’s prison overcrowding problem; and
- It would become easier for those convicted of such low-level crimes to make their way back into productive society after completing their punishment, instead of being effectively “branded” for life with a felony conviction that makes it harder to find employment.
What is more, reform proponents also believe that making Oklahoma’s drug possession laws less severe would serve to “normalize” the state’s laws compared to other states, based on the premise that this state has some of the toughest anti-drug possession laws in the nation, indeed laws that are too tough.
But is this actually the case? Is Oklahoma’s reputation for having harsher-than-usual illegal drug possession laws an earned one, or only the perception of a few? And would the benefits that the reformers are claiming be real, or imaginary? If you ask some prosecutors in this state, you will get a different answer from the reformers. And with the backing of a member of the state legislature, they are pushing back against the upcoming ballot measures.
The push-back consists of an approved legislative interim study, that will compare Oklahoma’s drug possession laws with those of other states to see if this state’s laws are really as draconian as the reform proponents suggest. Backers of the study are already of the mind that if the low-level reforms become law they will make Oklahoma one of the most lenient states when it comes to criminal sanctions for drug possession, and they are not convinced that the changes would have the beneficial effects that the reformers think they will. Indeed, they have expressed concern that all that would result would be a different kind of “revolving-door justice” that would keep habitual, repeat drug possession offenders going into and out of county jails for misdemeanors no matter how many times they are convicted.
At present, neither side of this argument can state with complete certainty that its case is stronger than the other. The reformers’ claims are largely hypothetical, based on comparisons with other states, and no one can tell what the findings of the interim study will be until it is completed. The fact remains, however, that if you are convicted for illegal drug possession, no matter what the quantity or the dollar value, that conviction can have short and long-term effects on you that are uniformly negative: even a misdemeanor conviction can make your life more difficult.
Regardless of whether the proposed reforms become effective, if you stand accused of possession of illegal drugs it is in your interest to fight those charges with the assistance of experienced defense counsel. An acquittal can avoid any kind of imprisonment and head off lasting damage to your reputation, or in a worst-case situation, your attorney can reduce the severity of the sanctions imposed upon you if acquittal is not possible. You owe it to yourself to present the best possible defense in any pretrial negotiation or trial defense, and having the best available legal defense team on your side is crucial to that objective.