The history of the criminalization of marijuana is filled with racial biases. It was targeted in the 1930s as an “alien scourge” and criminalized due to its association with Black and Latin American communities. Criminalization was never about public health. Tobacco, which is the leading cause of preventable death in the world, and alcohol, which is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States, are both drugs that remain perfectly legal. Despite a significant legal medical marijuana industry, Oklahoma continues to criminalize drugs like cannabis stripping the power away from consumers to make educated choices. However, all that may change.
State Question 820 is on the ballot for a vote on March 7, 2023. This is an important decision for Oklahoma voters that could have huge criminal justice system repercussions. So here at OCJR, we have broken down SQ 820 for you, explaining exactly what it does and what it doesn’t do.
What SQ820 Does
At the most simple level, SQ820 would legalize the possession and use of marijuana for all adults over the age of 21. Individuals would be legally allowed to possess, transport, or distribute up to one ounce of marijuana or 8 grams of marijuana in a concentrated form. However, SQ 820 does so much more than just that, it also creates a funding mechanism to battle substance abuse in our State, and creates a procedure for old marijuana convictions to be wiped clean.
SQ820 Generates Money to Battle Addiction
As part of the language of SQ820 there would be a 15% tax imposed on recreational marijuana sales. This would generate a massive amount of revenue for the State. According to an economic analysis released by national cannabis law and policy firm Vicente Sederberg LLP and the Oklahoma Cannabis Industry Association, recreational marijuana sales will generate more than $434 million in new tax revenue within the first five years of SQ 820’s implementation and more than $821 million in tax revenue on recreational and medical sales combined.
SQ820 mandates 20% of that tax revenue be for “grants to fund addiction treatment and overdose prevention services.” This is an important step in battling the public health crisis posed by fentanyl and other more dangerous illicit substances. Marijuana poses far fewer public health risks - including for teenagers - with a variety of studies finding that there is no correlation between marijuana legalization and teen marijuana use. In fact, some studies find that legalization actually decreases teen marijuana use most likely due to the difficulty in purchasing marijuana at an establishment that regularly verifies age as compared to the black market. There has also been no evidence that marijuana legalization has increased traffic fatalities due to drivers being under the influence of marijuana.
Funneling tax revenue towards substance abuse treatment and overdose prevention would help Oklahoma in numerous ways. According to the National Institutes of Health, 65% of prisoners nationwide have an active substance abuse disorder while only 11% receive substance abuse disorder treatment while incarcerated. Addiction is a key driver of criminal behavior with nearly one-third of all state inmates committing their crime due to drugs or for money to buy drugs. Using tax revenue generated from legal marijuana sales to fund substance abuse treatment will provide resources to address these issues before the incarceral system intervenes, helping the individual and the state as a whole, prevent crime before it occurs.
Finally, Marijuana also acts as a substitute for more dangerous substances with worse public health effects. For example, in Colorado after marijuana legalization, there was a decline in both opioid overdoses and opioid prescriptions. Marijuana legalization also decreases binge drinking amongst college aged individuals and overall alcohol consumption, as well as tobacco use. One can imagine that marijuana legalization would also decrease DUI related fatalities since overall alcohol consumption decreases.
SQ820 Allows the Expungement of Prior Marijuana Offenses
SQ820 also provides a legal mechanism for old marijuana convictions to be erased. The law provides that a person who is currently serving or has previously served a sentence for a marijuana-related offense can apply to have their conviction reversed, dismissed, or be resentenced. The court must grant the application unless “granting the petition would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to an identifiable individual's safety." Only offenses that would be made legal under SQ820 would be eligible for this expungement process.
Enforcement of marijuana laws has historically been very unequal. In Oklahoma, Black individuals are 4.24x more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense despite marijuana use rates being nearly identical across race. According to the OSBI, 40% of all drug arrests in Oklahoma were for marijuana. One conservative estimate proposes that Oklahoma has more individuals with marijuana offenses eligible for expungement than the rest of the nation combined.
Allowing low level marijuana offenders to exit the incarceral system will responsibly lower the incarceration rate, which currently is the third highest in the country. This will allow resources to be dedicated to violent crimes and other more pressing public safety issues. The expungement process applies to all prior marijuana convictions regardless if the individual is currently incarcerated, allowing for more economic opportunity for a wider group of people. Currently, 9 out of 10 employers, 4 out of 5 landlords, and 3 out of 5 colleges nationwide, use a background check to screen applicant criminal records, meaning even a minor marijuana conviction can have long lasting financial consequences for the individual. Personal income of those who have access to expungement increases by 25%, leading to more discretionary income being recirculated within local, often rural, communities..
What SQ820 Does Not Do
SQ820 Does Not Endanger Children
As discussed above, there is evidence that marijuana legalization actually serves to reduce teen marijuana use by restricting the channels in which under age individuals can obtain the drug. SQ820 also ensures that underage use is discouraged through packaging regulations. The law provides that there be:
Requirements that packaging and labels shall not be made to be attractive to children, requirements for warning labels, and requirements that marijuana, marijuana products, and marijuana-infused products be sold in resealable, child-resistant packaging designed to be significantly difficult for children under five (5) years of age to open and not difficult for adults to use properly.
While a child under 5 ingesting marijuana can result in medical issues, the same issues apply for legal products such as alcohol, valid prescription medication, and even cleaning supplies. Parents should take care to place marijuana away from children but the law itself does everything possible to avoid accidental ingestion.
Finally, the law ensures that marijuana use does not affect child custody proceedings unless “the behavior creates an unreasonable danger to the safety of the minor child.” This mirrors the way that Oklahoma treats alcohol use. Periodic alcohol use typically does not factor into child custody cases but alcohol dependence does - as long as the alcohol abuse is endangering the child or is against that child’s best interest. The same would be true for marijuana under SQ820, simply placing recreational marijuana use alongside other legal but potentially harmful substances to children such as alcohol and tobacco.
SQ820 Does Not Increase Violence
Data scientists and public policy experts have found no link between recreational marijuana laws and crime. In fact, one study found a significant decrease in some violent crimes after the legalization of marijuana. Marijuana legalization allows police to focus on more violent crimes and crimes with victims. A 2018 study at Washington State University found police solved significantly more crimes after the passage of legalization laws in Colorado and Washington.
Legalization also eliminates the black market for marijuana reducing violence. Although gaining reliable estimates on the value of an illegal enterprise is difficult - in 2006 the United States government estimated the value of Mexican Cartels at $13.8 billion—with $8.5 billion of that revenue coming from marijuana sales in the United States. Other estimates are much higher but regardless of the true number - a sizable portion of their criminal gains are made through marijuana sales within the United States. Eliminating this black market could do financial damage to the cartels and reduce the violence on our streets from international organized crime.
SQ820 presents a unique opportunity to reshape our criminal legal and public health policy around marijuana. It would bring Oklahoma in line with the 21 other states that have recognized the harm that criminalization of marijuana has created in the form of rising incarceration rates and unequal treatment under the law. Marijuana legalization is estimated to generate around 100 Million in annual revenue, some of which will be repurposed towards preventing crime before it occurs and helping many Oklahomans escape the yoke of addiction.