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February 15, 2014

Legal pot in Okla. unlikely

OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite last week’s largest pro-marijuana rally at the Oklahoma Capitol in recent history, there is little appetite in the conservative Oklahoma Legislature to join other states in legalizing cannabis, even for medicinal purposes.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle say that while attitudes may slowly be shifting toward loosening laws that prohibit Oklahomans from smoking pot, the idea isn’t worth the potential political fallout in a state with a tough-on-crime reputation that predates statehood — especially during an election year.

But with a growing prison system that consumes more of the state’s budget each year, along with the societal costs of locking up a greater share of its residents than nearly every other state, even conservative politicians in Oklahoma have expressed a willingness to look at options other than just longer prison sentences.

“We incarcerate a lot of people tied into drugs,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “So if there are things we can do with treatment to address the problem ... certainly anything we can do to keep people out of prison would be cost-effective.”

Gov. Mary Fallin touted being “smart on crime” in her state of the state address and promised to continue pushing the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a plan to divert some nonviolent offenders from prison and slow the explosive growth of the Corrections Department.

And many longtime proponents of overhauling the state’s criminal code, which has some of the harshest penalties in the country, are optimistic about last week’s election of state Rep. Jeff Hickman as the new speaker of the House. Hickman, R-Fairview, has three prisons in his district and most recently chaired the House budget committee that oversees funding for prisons, so he is intimately familiar with the impact the state’s nearly 27,000 inmates is having on the budget.

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