Communist and other authoritarian and totalitarian governments around the world have always, throughout history and at this very time, arrested (or sometimes just simply seized) and jailed (or sometimes just killed) political dissidents and other nonconformists whom they considered to be “enemies of the state” whose only crime was disagreeing with some government law or policy. Those so horribly treated didn’t kill anyone, assault anyone, violate anyone’s natural or civil rights, destroy anyone’s property, steal anything from anybody, or rape anyone. They were incarcerated (and sometimes tortured) for years (or sometimes for life) even though they engaged in peaceful activity that didn’t violate the personal or property rights of anyone else.
Unfortunately, the same thing regularly happens in the United States.
The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801) with “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and “a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.” Under federal law, possession of marijuana is punishable by a jail sentence not to exceed one year and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. Subsequent convictions have higher penalties. You can get life in prison for manufacturing or distributing 1,000 plants or kilograms of marijuana and the death penalty for “manufacturing, importing or distributing a controlled substance if the act was committed as part of a continuing criminal enterprise.”
Most of the states have similar laws.
Every year, more Americans are arrested for marijuana possession than for murder, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery combined. Roughly every minute that goes by, someone in the United States is arrested for marijuana possession.
That means that Americans can be arrested, fined, see their cash and property confiscated, and be locked in a cage with those who have committed violent crimes merely for growing, possessing, or selling a substance, or too much of a substance, that the government doesn’t approve of.
They are political prisoners. If they are arrested just for marijuana possession, they haven’t committed any act of violence, harmed anyone, or damaged anyone’s property. They are incarcerated even though they engaged in peaceful activity that didn’t violate the personal or property rights of anyone else.
Although thirty-three states have legalized the medical use of marijuana (with many restrictions), only ten states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana (with many restrictions). Oklahoma is one of those states where medical marijuana is legal but recreational marijuana is illegal. The state has a reputation for having some of the strictest drug laws in the country and the highest incarceration rate in the United States — until now.
More than 450 inmates in Oklahoma were released earlier this month. Most of them were political prisoners who were incarcerated for possessing a plant that government bureaucrats decided was an evil weed. Here is why that happened.
Back in 2016, “The Oklahoma Reclassification of Some Drug and Property Crimes as Misdemeanors Initiative,” also known as State Question 780, was on the November 8 ballot in Oklahoma as an initiated state statute.
The measure had been filed with the Oklahoma Secretary of State on January 27, 2016. Supporters of placing State Question 780 on the ballot needed to collect 65,987 valid signatures by early June. They submitted more than 110,000 signatures on June 2, 2016.
State Question 780 “changed certain non-violent drug- and theft-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, which come with a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $1,000, thereby reducing the number and duration of state prison sentences for those crimes.” State Question 780 made drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony, but continued the classification of drug manufacturing, trafficking, and selling as felonies.
The measure was approved by Oklahoma voters by a margin of 58.23 to 41.77 percent. It took effect on July 1, 2017.
But what about inmates in Oklahoma prisons who committed drug offenses before that date?
In May 2019, the governor of Oklahoma signed a bill (HB1269) passed by the Oklahoma House (78-14) and Senate (34-11), effectively making State Question 780 retroactive. HB1269 modifies the state expungement statutes by adding a new category of eligibility:
The measure allows a person to seek an expungement if the person was convicted of a nonviolent felony which was subsequently reclassified as a misdemeanor under Oklahoma law, the person is not currently serving a sentence for a crime in this state or another state, at least thirty (30) days have passed since the completion or commutation of the sentence for the crime that was reclassified as a misdemeanor, any restitution ordered by the court to be paid by the person has been satisfied in full, and any treatment program ordered by the court has been successfully completed by the person, including any person who failed a treatment program which resulted in an accelerated or revoked sentence that has since been successfully completed by the person or the person can show successful completion of a treatment program at a later date.
The measure directs the Pardon and Parole Board:
- to establish an accelerated, single-stage commutation docket for any applicant who has been convicted of a crime that has been reclassified from a felony to a misdemeanor under Oklahoma law,
- to recommend to the Governor for commutation, by majority vote, any commutation application placed on the accelerated, single-stage commutation docket that meets the eligibility criteria; and
- to certify a list of potentially eligible inmates to the Pardon and Parole Board within thirty days of the effective date of this act.
According to a press release by Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt, the Pardon and Parole Board considered 814 inmates’ cases during “an accelerated single-stage commutation docket to review the sentences of inmates in prison for crimes which would no longer be considered felonies if charged today.” On Friday, November 1, the Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously “to recommend the sentences of 527 state inmates be commuted, the largest such action in state and national history.”
Said Steven Bickley, Executive Director of the Pardon and Parole Board, “This is a historical day for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, as we send the largest single-day commutation of sentences in our nation’s history to the governor’s desk.” And said Governor Stitt, “I applaud the Pardon and Parole Board’s dedication to fulfill the will of the people through the HB 1269 docket, giving hundreds of nonviolent, low-level offenders an opportunity at a second chance.”
On the following Monday, November 4, 462 inmates were ultimately released. Had these political prisoners served out their full sentence, it would have cost the state of Oklahoma approximately $11.9 million.
This is a significant event, and one can only hope that other states follow suit.
Every crime needs a real victim — not a potential victim or a possible victim, but a tangible and identifiable victim who has suffered measurable harm to his person or measurable damages to his property. Possessing some form of a plant should never be a crime. That means that the change in the law in Oklahoma is just a first step. Marijuana possession shouldn’t even be a misdemeanor. But at least Oklahoma has freed some of its political prisoners.