Set Them Free

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The war on drugs has failed.

How many times do we have to say it and recognize it before there’s real reform? How many people do we have to incarcerate and humiliate before sensible policies prevail? How many billions, even trillions, of dollars in taxpayer money must we spend before basic rationality replaces zealotry?

Yes, so it’s great news that Oklahoma’s Patricia Spottedcrow, a 27-year-old mother convicted of selling $31 worth of marijuana in 2010, will get an early release from a draconian 12-year prison sentence, but as her attorney told the Tulsa World, “. . . she's certainly not the only case of this in Oklahoma. There are other Patricia Spottedcrows.”

Spottedcrow’s case highlights the disparity in drug-case sentencing. In some places in this country, for example, people have access to medical marijuana, or pot is pretty much decriminalized. Here in Oklahoma, an obsessive law-and-order political culture has filled our prisons with non-violent drug offenders, making the state rank first in the nation in the number of females it incarcerates. Surely, that ranking holds meaning, and, surely, Spottedcrow’s case is the perfect example of a state judicial and penal system that has lost its moral compass and any semblance of rationality.

I wrote about Spottedcrow’s case in 2011, pointing out that her conviction was a first offense. The mother of four entered a blind plea to selling $31 of marijuana to an informant in the Kingfisher area, and then received the draconian sentence from the late Kingfisher County District Judge Susie Pritchett. Spottedcrow’s children were in the house when she sold the marijuana, a fact that has been given as the reason for such a harsh sentence, a dubious rationale considering some violent crimes carry mandatory sentences far less than 12 years.

After the sentencing, Spottedcrow’s case received widespread media attention because of the obvious disparity between the crime and the sentence. Eventually, Gov. Mary Fallin, a staunch Republican conservative, agreed to an early release.

All of this senseless heartbreak and legal hassle remain the residue of the war on drugs declared by former President Richard Nixon some 40 years ago. This war has been decisively lost at a mind-boggling cost in terms of people’s lives and taxpayer money. As I wrote last year:

The numbers are staggering: Media reports show the United States spent $15.5 billion in 2010 on drug control efforts. More than $23 billion in federal and state money has been spent so far this year, according to DrugSense. Over the years, according to one report, the U.S. has spent at least $121 billion to arrest 37 million nonviolent people on drug charges. Meanwhile, illegal drugs remain readily available and people continue to use.

Patricia Spottedcrow, who will serve 120 days at a community-level facility before her release, is just one of those 37 million, a number that is ever growing with no end in sight. To repeat the words of her attorney, “There are other Patricia Spottedcrows,” and, yes, we need to set them free.