Oh! Oklahoma! 

A Sooner state senator stands up for sanity

"And God said, 'Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the Earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat."

Genesis, 1:29

When the insurgents from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria brutally swept through the northern portion of Iraq recently, they informed the public that their strict version of sharia law is now in effect. Women should stay indoors, they said, and thieves risk having their hands cut off.

Sharia, in its most corrupted forms such as that espoused by ISIS, can be a very, very draconian affair with punishments wildly out of proportion to the offenses, by most standards. We've all heard news stories about abuses of sharia —women stoned to death or gang-raped for dishonoring their families, tongues cut out, limbs surgically removed. We don't have sharia in America, and that's probably a good thing.

But we have Oklahoma.

Right here in America, in a place that literally touches Colorado, where cannabis is legal, judges have the authority to send you to prison for life for selling even small amounts of marijuana. I'll write that again, just to be sure you read it right. Judges in Oklahoma can sentence you to life for selling small amounts of marijuana.

Now, don't get any more alarmed than you have to. No one is going to face life for having an ounce of pot. The penalty for a first-time possession of small amounts is up to a year in prison and a fine up to $1,000. Even a second offense is "only" punishable by a maximum of 10 years and a fine up to $5,000. But if you sell that ounce, suddenly the maximum penalty is life.

Sentences like that ruin lives, affect minorities disproportionately and clog prisons with minor offenders, so Oklahoma state Sen. Connie Johnson has been trying for a while to change it. In February, Johnson introduced a bill to legalize recreational use for adults.

"As taxpayers, we're spending over $30 million each year policing, jailing and incarcerating our citizens on marijuana-related offenses, yet marijuana is almost universally available," she said. "It's time for a smarter approach."

Yes, it is. But her effort has yet to see a vote in the Republican-dominated Public Safety Committee. It seems unlikely to ever see the light of day, so Johnson is taking the issue to voters. Citing Genesis 1:29 as her guidance, Johnson last week submitted a petition to legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol. It might have a better chance than you think.

Oklahoma has roughly 1.9 million registered voters, of which about 885,000 are Democrats. Just 856,000 are Republican. To make the November ballot, the petition needs about 170,000 signatures of registered voters. They have roughly 90 days to get them.

The law would allow personal cultivation and possession for recreational use, and it would tax cannabis sales. It's becoming a boilerplate process - try to pass legalization in your legislature, then if that fails, let the people decide. And it's starting to work —it worked in Colorado and Washington (though it narrowly failed in Oregon), and a lot of people expect it to work in Alaska in November.

I'm not here to advocate wholesale, unregulated and unpunished black market sales of marijuana, but Oklahoma is a shining example of why we need to change our marijuana laws and I'm behind Sen. Johnson's effort to change it. It's a travesty that in a place literally one step away from where the maximum penalty for selling an ounce of marijuana is three years, the potential penalty for the same crime is life in prison. It doesn't matter that Oklahoma judges don't sentence people to life for selling small amounts of marijuana.

It matters that they can.

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