Plans to change voter-approved drug laws face backlash


By Sean Murphy - Associated Press



OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Some Republicans in the Oklahoma Legislature are pushing back against voter-approved changes in November to soften drug possession penalties, arguing that voters didn’t know exactly what they were doing when they approved the initiatives with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Several proposals have been introduced this year by tough-on-crime Republicans who want to undo some of the changes approved by voters just a few months ago, including one bill to reinstate felony penalties for some drug possession crimes that easily cleared a House committee on Wednesday.

Those plans are riling up voters who approved the changes and said they are fed up with Oklahoma’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons. More than 100 supporters of the initiatives packed into a town hall meeting earlier this week hosted by state Sen. Ralph Shortey and blistered the Oklahoma City Republican for nearly three hours.

“Do your job!” demanded Sean Cummings, a 53-year-old restaurateur who said he was angry about the Legislature’s plan to make changes to State Question 780, which makes drug possession and low-level property offenses a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

“It’s usurping the vote of the people,” Cummings said afterward. “It’s an incompetent Legislature that doesn’t do anything. And then when the people try to do something about it, then they try to undo it. It makes no sense.”

But Shortey and some other Republicans, including two former prosecutors in the House, say the ballot title didn’t make it clear that passage of the question would make it a simple misdemeanor to possess or use drugs on school property or in the presence of young children.

“Nowhere in the ballot title did it mention children or the locations where children are targeted,” said Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcell. “The voters were not told about it.”

District attorneys and some law enforcement groups are among those who opposed the ballot initiatives.

Downing and Rep. Scott Biggs, another former prosecutor, authored a bill that makes it a felony to possess drugs in the presence of children younger than 12 or within 1,000 feet of a school, park, university or day care, with penalties of up to 10 years in prison. The bill easily passed a House committee and now heads to the full House.

Despite voter opposition to lawmakers tinkering with changes that were just approved at the ballot box, such a move isn’t entirely uncommon for legislatures to do, said Floyd Feeney, a law professor at University of California, Davis.

South Dakota’s governor already has signed into law a measure that kills new ethics regulations that voters there imposed in November, saying the initiative was unconstitutional. During debate on the bill earlier this month, supporters packed the Senate gallery, and an airplane circled the Capitol for hours with a banner that read: “Shame on you! Respect our vote!”

Some states, like Washington and Arizona, prohibit lawmakers from undoing voter-backed initiatives without super majorities. Others, like Nevada, prohibit such changes by the Legislature within three years of taking effect.

Former Republican Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, who spearheaded the ballot initiatives in Oklahoma as a way to reduce Oklahoma’s explosive prison growth and ease the societal costs associated with mass incarceration, said there appears to be a disconnect between voters and some district attorneys and legislators.

“People in Oklahoma have clearly expressed their will that Oklahoma is incarcerating too many low-level offenders,” Steele said. “Most district attorneys don’t seem to understand that. Unfortunately, a handful of legislators don’t either.”

Associated Press reporter James Nord in Pierre, South Dakota, contributed to this report.

By Sean Murphy

Associated Press

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