Uniformity in drug distribution laws sought
Prosecutors say they are not overcharging suspects in crimes of drug dealing
A bipartisan coalition of community leaders wants lawmakers to specifically define the crime of drug possession with intent to distribute to ensure the charge is used consistently across the state.
“We are seeking to establish a standard definition of what constitutes possession with intent to distribute so that we can accurately ensure that individuals who battle addiction aren't being overcharged, while people who are truly causing problems in our communities by distributing drugs are being charged appropriately,” said Kris Steele,
executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
Proposed legislation backed by the group would require that three of seven criteria be present for a person to be charged with possession with intent to distribute. The criteria would include factors such as possessing means to weigh the substance, a record indicating a drug transaction or more than $500 cash. A person in possession of more than four grams of a schedule I or schedule II controlled substance other than marijuana also could be charged with possession with intent to distribute.
It's one of 14 reform measures the coalition is supporting this legislative session.
“A standard definition provides accountability, it improves transparency and it is considered a best practice,” Steele said.
Prison admissions for possession with intent to distribute increased 20 percent statewide during the 2018 fiscal year, and much of that growth came from just a handful of district attorney jurisdictions, according to a report by the coalition and a national political organization called FWD. us.
District attorneys said they consider a variety of factors when determining whether to charge someone with possession with intent to distribute and rejected the notion that they would overcharge the crime.
“That's completely wrong,” said Max Cook, district attorney for Creek and Okfuskee counties. “We're not going to trump up charges on anyone.”
About 70 percent of the growth in the state's prison admissions for possession with intent to distribute came from six of the state's 27 district attorney jurisdictions, according to the report. Those districts are: District 21 (Cleveland, Garvin and McClain counties), District 20 (Carter, Johnston, Love, Marshall and Murray), District 1 (Beaver, Cimarron, Harper and Texas), District 5 (Comanche and Cotton), District 9 (Logan and Payne) and District 24 (Creek and Okfuskee).
District attorneys from two of those jurisdictions said they've noticed an increase in the prevalence of methamphetamine in their districts since the passage of State Question 780, which made simple drug possession a misdemeanor.
District Attorney Craig Ladd wrote in an email that methamphetamine abuse has risen to “an epidemic level” in District 20, which encompasses five counties in south-central Oklahoma. District Attorney Mike Boring said in a statement that District 1, which encompasses the Oklahoma Panhandle, has seen an increase in the distribution of meth to students.
District 21 accounted for about 20 percent of the statewide growth, the most of any district, according to the report. The number of people from the district who went to prison for possession with intent to distribute more than doubled from 24 to 55 during fiscal year 2018, according to figures provided by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
District Attorney Greg Mashburn said there's no concerted effort on his office's part to do anything differently than they always have.
“From year to year, that number's going to go up and down,” Mashburn said. “I guess what they're getting at is somehow accusing District 21 of all of a sudden deciding to file more possession with intent charges, and I mean that's ridiculous because we only file the charges that people commit.”
He said his district has “great alternative sentencing programs,” and his office only sends people to prison “when that's the only option left on the table” after evaluating what's best for public safety. He said he is one cog in the criminal justice system and if he was making poor choices, those decisions would be vetted through judges and juries.