TULSA, Okla. (KTUL) — Some Oklahoma officials warn State Question 820’s efforts to expunge low-level marijuana convictions could cause more problems than it’d solve.
The text of SQ 820, which would legalize recreational marijuana in Oklahoma, almost takes up the entire ballot. But the second-to-last sentence might have the biggest implications.
“The law,” it reads, “requires resentencing, reversing, modifying, and expunging certain prior marijuana-related judgments and sentences unless the state proves an unreasonable risk to a person.”
Damion Shade of the Yes on 820 advocacy group sees this as a huge benefit to Oklahomans.
“The measure also provides what’s called ‘post-conviction relief,’” he explained, “which is just a fancy way of saying, ‘getting your criminal convictions cleared.’ It’s taken out of the way of you getting a good job, of you owning a home, of you being able to access education and employment programs that might train you.”
“It’s a path to clearing old marijuana convictions for the thousands and thousands of Oklahomans who still have those convictions on their records,” he continued.
NewsChannel 8 read this portion of SQ 820 to Craig, Mayes, and Rogers Counties District Attorney Matt Ballard, then asked how he would interpret it.
“I think it allows wholesale expungement of offenses like trafficking in marijuana,” he said, “and it also impacts people who have dealt marijuana previously.”
NewsChannel 8 asked Ballard why the question’s writers may have included that sentence.
“There’s probably a misunderstanding about our current expungement laws,” he responded. “Already, somebody convicted of a low-level offense can have their offense expunged. There are even forms in the statute that assist with that.”
4,978 Oklahomans were arrested for possession of marijuana in 2020 alone, according to the OSBI. 474 of those arrested were juveniles.
In 2020, marijuana possession comprised 38.2% of drug arrests in Oklahoma, 79.1% of juvenile drug arrests, 4% of all arrests, and a staggering 8% of all juvenile arrests.
Additionally, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found Oklahoma has seen more federal convictions for marijuana possession than any other state in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming).
Ballard admitted the “unreasonable risk” clause in SQ 820 is probably meant to address dealers and traffickers. However, he said the extra language will make his job more difficult.
“It adds litigation, it adds time, and certainly, it makes it much more difficult for us to ensure that people know what people have been convicted of,” he explained.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler doesn’t like SQ 820’s wording, either.
“I call this criminal justice reform hidden under the veil of legalization of marijuana,” he said.
Ballard said he isn’t opposed to helping low-level marijuana offenders clear their records. But he thinks little problems with SQ 820’s wording, such as “modifying and expunging” instead of “modifying or expunging,” could create large-scale unforeseen consequences.
“A minor tweak can make major changes,” he asserted. “If this had gone through the normal legislative process, these are things we could’ve pointed out and we could’ve approached. But because it’s a state question, we don’t have that opportunity.”