Illegal Drugs “Will Not be Tolerated” in Oklahoma

In Oklahoma, a person can face life without parole along with up to $50,000 in fines for a first time non-violent drug offense, thanks to the passing of House Bill 1798, which enables this sentencing for anyone convicted of manufacturing hashish, cultivating marijuana, or selling. The Senate voted on the bill, 44-2, and the House approved it, 75 to 18, allowing the Legislature to pass it, back in April 2011. Under this House Bill, anyone facing a second offense will have doubled sentences and will be unable to receive a suspended sentence or probation.

Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Board of Narcotics, stated that the bill is meant to “send a message” that illegal drugs “will not be tolerated” in Oklahoma, but don’t you think life in prison is a little extreme for selling weed? Convicts are given shorter sentences for causing bodily harms to people – meanwhile, non-violent offenders are facing life in prison. Not only is this unfair to the sentenced person and their families, but each day in an Oklahoma prison costs $56 per person, which will then cost about $20,000 a year.

Many of you may have heard about Patricia M. Spottedcrow, the 25-year-old Oklahoma mother of four who was given a ten-year sentence for selling $31 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop back in February. Two years were added onto her sentence when police found marijuana in her jacket pocket as she was being picked up to go to prison. Her sentence has since been reduced to eight years. Her fifty-year-old mother,  Delita Starr, who was present at the time of the undercover cop’s purchase, is facing a 30-year suspended sentence with no incarceration, but with five years of drug and alcohol testing.

Patricia Spottedcrow, mother of 4, was sentenced to ten years in prison for the sale of marijuana to an undercover police officer.

“The punishment does not fit the crime,” said Josh Welch to Tulsa World, an Oklahoma City attorney who represents Spottedcrow. “We are pleased Judge Davis recognized her sentence needed to be modified, but we are simply not pleased with the amount of time that was modified,” Welch said. “I don’t walk away from this feeling good even with four years knocked down, and I’m not going to give up until she is released.”

Spottedcrow and Starr were both offered plea deals of two years in prison, because this was their first offense, but they took their chances and entered a guilt plea to the judge, without a prior sentence agreement. If you are ever faced with a similar situation, never enter a “blind guilty plea” like this.

This court case led to an uprising across the nation, with the creation of online petitions and donations to her children. A rally was held in Oklahoma City, featuring @waynecoyne of the The Flaming Lips.

State Senator Constance N. Johnson introduced Senate Bill 986, which would end life sentences without parole for nonviolent drug offenses and require the state Pardon and Parole Board to review all existing life without parole sentences for those offenses. The measure also addresses punishment enhancements for felony offenses. However, and as we all could have suspected, this bill has been completely disregarded by the state legislature.

Johnson continues fighting to reduce the sentencing for non-violent offenders facing life in prison, as she made an appearance at the parole board hearing for Larry Yarbrough, a 61-year-old who is seventeen years into his life sentence for possession of an ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes after having previous felony convictions, including distribution of marijuana and distribution of LSD in the 1980s.  There are currently 48 prisoners facing life in prisonin Oklahoma for non-violent, drug-related offenses.

Oklahoma State Senator Constance N. Johnson is fighting to reform the laws on drugs within the state.

“We have murderers, rapists and child molesters getting paroled, but here is a husband, father, grandfather, business owner and community servant who could spend half his life in prison costing the state millions of dollars,” said Johnson.  “We have people serving less time for greater amounts of drugs than what Mr. Yarbrough was convicted of—an ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes. Surely 17 years is a long enough punishment for his crime.  In the name of justice and common sense, I urge Governor Fallin to accept the board’s recommendations,” she added.

Although Oklahoma currently has some of the harshest drug laws in the nation, Johnson believes that there is hope for reform, especially after the passage of House Bill 2131, a sentencing reform bill sponsored by the Republican legislative leadership, which removes the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenses, expands community sentencing eligibility, and provides for GPS monitoring of nonviolent offenders.

Johnson stated, “Fortunately, other state and local officials are beginning to see that the current system has filled our prisons to near capacity, cost the state millions in tax dollars, and still isn’t working…We took a step in the right direction in the legislature this past session passing major reforms for our state’s correction system under House Bill 2131, which will save our state millions of dollars, and still protect the public from the state’s most dangerous, violent offenders. These were great first steps but we have even more to do this coming session and beyond.  We need to ensure that offenders’ sentences fairly match their crimes, both as a matter of human decency and fiscal responsibility.”

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The #Occupy Movement: What Could it Mean for Drug Reform?

Unless you’ve been literally hiding out under a rock with no outside social contact for the last month, you’re sure to by now have heard at least something about the #OccupyWallStreet protest and the subsequent #Occupy gatherings that have been cropping up in cities around the nation and world. So now that the media and political elites have shown they are finally ready to acknowledge the protests, we get to hear everyone’s new opinions on “What these protests mean for [fill in anything here].” The unique thing about these protests as opposed to some other recent grassroots political movements is that they have such a wide potential and an extremely diverse base. Where the media were able to immediately paint a picture of the Tea Party as a bunch of wacko white right-wing Christian racists who couldn’t spell and didn’t understand simple political terms like ‘socialism,’ ‘communism’ or ‘Czar,’ the #Occupy protesters seem to be made up of people from all over the racial, religious and even political spectrums, and even mainstream media outlets like the New York Times are having a tough time putting the movement in a box.

This to me seems to be the strongest and most vital aspect of the #Occupy movement. Because all of our societal structures are in immediate need of broad, sweeping reform, We the People simply do not have enough time left to focus on just two or three hot-button issues. We want change, REAL change, in broad and sweeping ways, and we want it YESTERDAY. We want an end to the War on Drugs. We want an end to burning fossil fuels that are destroying our environment, destroying our economies, and allowing our resources to be hoarded by a greedy few. We want an end to a Federal Banking racket that gambles away OUR money to make themselves richer. We want an end to this system that encourages people to ascend to richness and wealth while relying on keeping the poor in an endless cycle of imprisonment and debt. We want these things and a long laundry list of more, and most of it boils down to trimming the government back to what we started from in the first place: our constitution.

So back to my original question: what does this mean for us, the drug reform community? It means we have a huge, active base that is paying attention. We have a group of people who are willing to wear many hats, carry batons for many causes, and change the world for good for the sake of our very futures. There are people all over the country who are finally not only paying attention, but they’re volunteering. They’re protesting. They’re reading a lot. They’re tweeting, taking pictures and videos of police encounters and sharing articles with their friends, family and loved ones. They’re voting; they’re getting their peers registered to vote. They’re writing letters to the editor and making signs and voting in polls and making damn sure that their voice rings out loud and clear at all of the precious few opportunities they get to air it.

What does the #Occupy movement mean? It means, my friends, that we are no longer alone, and we would do well to find the others.