Liberalizing the state law on possession of illegal drugs will be on the November ballot as State Question 780 and Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler is concerned it might be approved.
“If this is passed, Oklahoma will be labeled as having the most liberal drug legislation in the country,” Kunzweiler said. “This is more liberal than California. This is more liberal than the State of Washington.
“Oklahoma will never have another felony drug possession crime again if this passes.”
Kunzweiler described State Question 780 as a “disaster.”
“It’s plain and simple from a prosecutor’s perspective,” Kunzweiler said. “We’ve been working very hard over the last several years to try to get our Legislature to address what the obvious issues were with addictive drugs influencing our criminal prosecutions. Finally, this year Gov. Mary Fallin had the courage to help manage through the legislative process some type of criminal justice reform that would address what we have historically seen, which is the flood of people with addictive issues. Eventually they are funneled into the prison system.”
District attorneys across the state met with Fallin and drafted reforms that the DAs had been seeking for 20 years, Kunzweiler said.
“Those included capping the sentence for those with a strictly drug possession type of conviction,” Kunzweiler said. “That will go a long way in regards to some of the concerns that people have about somebody going to prison for the rest of their life for a possession case, like crack cocaine or something like that.
“But this particular proposition is being labeled as ‘reform for low-level felonies.’ Literally, the language says that, if adopted, from this day forward, possession of a controlled dangerous substance will perpetually be a misdemeanor.”
Someone caught with a “trafficking” amount could still be prosecuted for a felony under the new law.
“They are trying to sell this as dealing with low-level felonies, as though possession of a drug is some type of low-level felony,” Kunzweiler said. “Whenever I am picking a jury, I often ask if they have been the victims of a crime and many people raise their hands and say their homes got burglarized or my car got broken into.
“Well, who are the people who are doing that? It’s not some organized syndicate who is gathering up your property and selling it. These are the people who have these addicted drug issues. And they are trying to figure out how to fund their drug habits. So what do they do? They break into people’s homes and steal stuff from their cars. They pawn that stuff off and then they go get their next drug.
“The net effect is this – if you are caught with methamphetamine today, if this new law passes, it would be a misdemeanor. Tomorrow, if you get caught with methamphetamine, it will be a misdemeanor. Two years from now, a misdemeanor. You could have 55 arrests and convictions for methamphetamine and always have a misdemeanor.
“I don’t know anybody who would call that a low-level crime.”
That would be the same with heroin or cocaine or PCP.
“The things that are obviously a threat to our community because of what happens for these people who try to fund their drug habits, you have got to have some kind of what I call a heavy hand,” Kunzweiler said.
A parent doesn’t just tell a child to not do something again but at some point, the child must realize that punishment goes with bad behavior, Kunzweiler said.
“This is basically wagging your finger at these folks and saying, ‘don’t do it again,’ because we are really going to come after you,” Kunzweiler said.
Reducing possession to a misdemeanor also shifts the costs from the state to the city or county.
“It shifts the burden down to the taxpayers,” Kunzweiler said. “No longer will these people be going to prison for a state offense, where the state will share the cost. Now it is going to be solely a Tulsa County problem.
“We will have to be looking at Tulsa County taxpayers for housing these people who are committing these crimes.
“It is dangerous. I think it is going to be a disaster for my drug court programs.”
As it stands, the longest jail sentence for a misdemeanor is 12 months. The drug court program takes 18 months to three years to be successful and avoid a return to drug abuse.
“When you are caught up with methamphetamine or cocaine, it’s going to take you a good long time to try and get through that process to free your brain of that chemical addiction and move on to a productive life,” Kunzweiler said. “Misdemeanor, by definition in Oklahoma, is a crime only punishable by 12 months in county jail.
“So, if you are a defense attorney and you have client who says, ‘I have picked up possession of heroin charge, what are my options?’ Of course, the attorney is going to say that the maximum punishment is a year but the DA wants you to go into drug court.”
Drug court is tough. Felons are drug tested a couple of times a week. They have to go to court every week and be accountable.
And it could last three years.
“’Why would I do that if the maximum punishment is only a year?’ the criminal would say,” Kunzweiler said. “The reality is this. No matter how it’s being labeled, no matter how it’s being sold, the public is getting sold on something that is not being supported by any prosecutor that I know of in Oklahoma.
“DAs were never consulted on this proposition.”
Across the nation, legalization of marijuana and other drugs has been gaining traction despite warning from law enforcement and moral authorities.
“Our challenge is to stand up for what we have always believed in,” Kunzweiler said. “Right is right and wrong is wrong. It is as simple as that. There has to be some accountability.”
Kunzweiler said his office tries hard to keep addicted people from having to go to prison.
“We need to stand up to those evils on our doorstep and hold people accountable,” Kunzweiler said.
Another aspect is that a career criminal who is too clever to be caught in a drive-by shooting might be put away on a drug charge if that is a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
“How did Al Capone get caught? He didn’t get caught by ordering hits,” Kunzweiler said. “He got caught because he wasn’t paying his taxes.
“Prosecutors need every tool available to get these bad guys off the street.”