420: Data shows marijuana isn't Oklahoma's problem drug 

Mark Woodward poses for a photo at the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, Thursday, April 14, 2016. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Mark Woodward poses for a photo at the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, Thursday, April 14, 2016.

Read more of Oklahoma Gazette's special 420 coverage at okgazette.com

When it comes to marijuana — the most common drug in the world — the United States consistently ranks high in consumption.

Nationally, about 7 percent of Americans age 12 and older have used marijuana in the past month, according to data in the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Oklahoma’s cannabis consumption falls short of the national average, as about 6 percent of survey respondents say they used marijuana within the past month. Data shows the national average is 7.5 percent (up from 5.8 percent in 2007).

However, a separate NSDUH survey found Oklahoma leads the nation in nonmedical use of painkillers, with more than 8 percent of the population abusing or misusing them.

National survey figures match narcotics trends tracked by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drug Control (OBN), the state agency responsible for combating illegal drug use and enforcing drug laws.

“Right now, our drug addicts’ drug of choice is meth and prescription drugs,” said Mark Woodward, OBN spokesman.

In a 2002 U.S. Department of Justice report, methamphetamine was named the “greatest drug threat to Oklahoma.”

Around the millennium, Oklahoma’s drug problem began to move from streets to medicine cabinets as pain medication prescriptions proliferated. The report also listed the presence of street drugs — cocaine, marijuana and heroin — in the state.

More than a dozen years later, pharmaceutical drugs are now responsible for 68 percent of drug overdose deaths across the state, according to OBN. Additionally, only one street drug — cocaine — was included in its list of the top nine abused drugs.

In 2015, 823 fatal drug overdoses occurred in Oklahoma, an almost 140-percent increase over the 344 deaths reported in 2001, OBN data shows.

“They are in every medicine cabinet,” Woodward said about prescription painkillers. “You see teenagers abusing because of accessibility. You see people addicted to street drugs realizing they don’t have to feed their addiction on the street. … You don’t have to sneak around in a dark alley for a potentially dangerous drug deal. You can go visit grandmother and ask to use her bathroom.”

Arrests, reform

An Oklahoma Gazette analysis found the number of arrests for drug abuse violations in the state are declining.

In 2002, Oklahoma’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recorded 22,097 arrests for drug abuse violations, including sales and possession.

Marijuana possession comprised 45.5 percent of arrests in the state. Possession of opium or cocaine and their derivatives, such as crack, morphine and heroin, followed with 15.6 percent of arrests.

Possession of synthetic narcotics — laboratory-created drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and methadone, which cause dependency — accounted for 13 percent. Possession of other dangerous drugs, which included methamphetamine and Benzedrine, made up 6.73 percent.

According to the most recent Uniform Crime Report, Oklahoma law enforcement arrested 16,846 people for drug law violations in 2014, a decrease of 23.7 percent compared to 2002. Marijuana possession accounted for 52.39 percent of total drug-related arrests. Synthetic narcotic possession arrests came in second with 20.24 percent, followed by other dangerous drug possession with 17.93 percent. Possession of opium or cocaine and their derivatives comprised 7.4 percent of the arrests.

Currently, penalties for possession depend on the type and amount of drug a person is accused of possessing and the number of prior drug-related offenses. According to Oklahoma law, a first offense for marijuana possession is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum of one year in jail. A second offense is a felony and requires between two and 10 years.

Illegal possession of Schedule I or II drugs — such as Ecstasy and LSD, oxycodone, methadone, amphetamine and codeine — is a felony punishable between two and 10 years and a $5,000 fine. A secondary offense can lead to a sentence between four to 20 years in prison.

In recent months, Oklahoma lawmakers have pushed for reform of the state’s drug laws with House Bill 2479, which is one vote away from the governor’s desk. The measure reduces the mandatory punishment for subsequent drug offenses. Authored by Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, the bill would reduce first-time possession of marijuana offenses to jail time not to exceed a year. For first-time possession of a Schedule I or II drug, a person could face a felony punishment of no more than five years.

Similar criminal justice reform measures are proposed in the citizen-led initiative petition known as State Question 780. The Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act calls for statutory changes to state law, including amending drug sentences. Under the measure, drug possession would be a misdemeanor carrying no more than one year in jail and a fine not to exceed $1,000. Through early June, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is collecting signatures in an effort to bring the question before voters in November.

Proponents of criminal justice reform believe new policies are needed to curb the state’s high prison populations. Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform believe its proposal, coupled with measures to reinvest the savings in mental health and drug abuse treatment programs and job training, will reduce the number of prisoners.

As president of the Oklahoma chapter for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Norma Sapp has advocated for loosening restrictions on Oklahoma’s marijuana laws. She described adverse effects from simple possession arrests, such as struggling to afford the first-time offender fee of up to $1,000.

Sapp said public opinion has evolved on drug laws. A circulator of state questions 780 and 781, Sapp hears comments about Oklahoma prisons being over capacity and the cost to incarcerate an offender.

“It’s the expense,” Sapp said. “We’ve got to cut the bleeding from the state budget.”

Location influence

For decades, Oklahoma has played a critical role for many Mexican drug cartels in their efforts to push their products, such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine and crystal methamphetamine, into the United States. The drugs travel across the Texas-Mexico border and north on Interstate 35 into the Sooner State.

“It is not uncommon for the cartels to send a shipment: two or three cars across with cocaine, two or three cars that have large quantities of Mexican tar or black tar heroin and two or three cars loaded with marijuana or ice [crystal meth],” Woodward said. “They move it through [Oklahoma] and use it as a base for trafficking. … A lot of these shipments are going to the East Coast, like Chicago or Boston. Some of the drug cartels set up cell groups in Oklahoma for managing those drugs.”

In recent years, Oklahoma’s crackdown on locally run meth operations resulted in outsourcing meth from the Mexico-based drug cartels. Last year, OBN tracked 118 meth labs, down from 913 labs in 2011. During that period, meth-related deaths continued to rise, resulting in 265 deaths in 2015.

“We are still having more and more people using meth; it is just sourced differently,” Woodward said.

OBN has taken note of the rising heroin crisis in parts of the United States. Heroin abuse has skyrocketed in the Northeast and Midwest but has ticked upward at a slower pace in Oklahoma, Woodward said.

“We’ve got so many more people in Oklahoma using meth or prescription drugs first, before ever going to heroin,” Woodward said.

The Center for Disease Control links the rise of heroin to the addiction of prescription opioid painkillers. In some instances, even when taken as prescribed, patients develop a substance dependence to prescription painkillers; when the prescription stops or the prescription becomes too expensive, they turn to heroin.

While heroin didn’t make OBN’s top-nine abused drug list for 2015, fentanyl — a drug that delivers a heroin-like high — did. Fentanyl, a prescription painkiller, contributed to 68 Oklahoma deaths over the past year.

“Heroin is almost the last resort because … you’ve got to go out on the streets,” Woodward said. “You’ve got to know a heroin dealer. … As prescription drugs get harder to obtain and doctors start cutting them off, they will start going on the streets.” 

(Christopher Street)

(Christopher Street)

Print headline: Narcotic realities, Oklahoma Gazette looks at the state’s most dangerous drugs.

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