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Proposal To Legalize Marijuana in Oklahoma Highlights Need For Criminal Justice Reform!

On March 7, citizens of Oklahoma will be asked only one question: Do they favor the legalization of cannabis for adult use? Oklahoma will become the 22nd state to eliminate cannabis prohibition if voters approve State Question 820, continuing the national trend toward legalization.

17 of the 29 states that have not yet legalized adult-use cannabis has submitted legislation this year. The majority of these suggestions are unlikely to be adopted in 2023, but the general trend remains unchanged: the country’s attitude toward the criminalization of cannabis has changed.

Now that a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, it’s time to put an end to the brutal “War on Drugs.” Nevertheless, simply lifting the ban on cannabis does not put an end to the War. Tens of thousands of people in the United States are currently serving sentences for marijuana-related crimes, including those in areas where the drug is legal.

Millions of people nationwide nonetheless live with the burden of having a cannabis conviction for life. The legalization of cannabis must offer retroactive relief through state-initiated record clearing and resentencing in order to effectively address the harms of its prior illegality.

A significant evidence-based solution to addressing the long-lasting harm caused by cannabis criminal records, which can restrict an individual’s access to jobs, housing, financial stability, and other possibilities, records clearance, also known as expungement.

Record clearing promotes effective reentry for those with prior cannabis convictions and is a crucial component of legalizing while holding those responsible for the unjust origins of prohibition accountable.

For those still serving terms during the time of the War on Drugs, resentencing is an additional crucial kind of relief. In light of legalization, this policy requires courts to reevaluate cannabis-related sentences for defendants for whom ongoing incarceration or supervision is no longer in the interests of justice.

It is essential that the proceedings for record cleaning and resentencing are started by the state. The government must be in command of the process in order to fully legalize with integrity and allow meaningful access to the relief mechanisms, as opposed to putting an excessive burden on those who would be affected to obtain relief.

When a government admits it was wrong to support prohibition, it also has to accept responsibility for making things right. Fortunately, Oklahoma’s State Question 820 has provisions for petitioner-initiated record-clearing and sentencing reform.

By doing this, Oklahoma joins a rising number of states that are focusing their legalization efforts on criminal justice regulations. Oklahoma’s historically conservative landscape makes the introduction of these laws all the more significant.

The public’s effort to emphasize retroactive relief in their legalization proposal demonstrates the national and increasingly bipartisan trend toward these policies. Oklahoma’s Republican-led government is not known for passing legislation generally considered progressive.

In reality, Delaware, which has not yet legalized cannabis, and other historically blue states have granted retroactive relief before Oklahoma’s cannabis justice initiative. If Oklahoma is successful, it will act as a barometer for other more conservative states that do not yet have marijuana laws in place.

Provisions for record clearing were present in each of the seven legalization acts that were passed in 2021 and 2022. This data demonstrates the rising tendency in favor of incorporating criminal justice policies. In fact, 19 of the 21 legalization states—all but Maine and Alaska—have passed cannabis-specific record-clearing laws.

In 12 of these states, the procedure was started by the state. Resentencing, however, is still behind since many states do not include it in their legalization measures. Only two legal states have made cannabis-specific resentencing state-initiated, out of the nine states that have legalized the drug.

We are optimistic that the adoption of this crucial legislation in Oklahoma foreshadows broader trends, indicating that resentencing is now assuming its proper position at the fore of legalization. Nevertheless, SQ 820’s retroactive relief measures don’t have the full or explicit language that they need.

The majority of those who are eligible for record clearance and resentencing relief will not actually receive it since the pathways are not automated or state-initiated. Furthermore, it’s unclear from the phrasing just who will qualify.

Regrettably, this is a prevalent trait of ballot proposal language, and successful implementation is likely to require additional legislation. Even so, it is an important first step for Oklahoma. Although five other states considered legalizing marijuana through ballot initiatives in November, Oklahoma finally decided to do so.

These efforts had varying degrees of success. Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota abstained, while Maryland and Missouri voted in favor of legalization. State-initiated record clearing and resentencing were included in Maryland and Missouri, respectively (though only petitioner-initiated, rather than the state-initiated gold standard).

Local advocates are urging voters to take into account the financial possibility of a legal market even as polls are divided on whether Oklahoma’s initiative will succeed. From 2024 to 2028, medicinal and recreational marijuana sales are expected to generate $821 million in tax revenue for the state. LPP, however, contends that reparation for harms caused by prohibitionist laws should be the primary motivation for legalizing rather than the possibility of financial gain.

With processes for record clearance and resentencing, Oklahoma is taking the right measures to legalize with integrity, which we applaud. These initiatives were included because they are just the right thing to do, which demonstrates their appeal across party lines and other divisions. If Oklahoma succeeds, there will still be more work to be done.

We urge the lawmakers to keep in mind that even if the initiative is successful, more laws and a larger role for the government would be needed to provide comprehensive relief. In the end, though, the inclusion of criminal justice concerns in such a significant state campaign is encouraging for the cannabis reform movement, and we are optimistic for SQ 820s passing next month.

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Sheela Sharma

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