Criminal justice reform efforts driving fundraising in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana
Written By: Reese Gorman
Photo Courtesy: Dylan Goforth
(OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.) The campaign in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana in Oklahoma has raised more than $3 million, mostly relying on out-of-state groups and criminal justice reform organizations to pad its bank account.
State Question 820 would apply retroactively to people convicted for certain marijuana crimes. If a person would “not have been guilty of an offense or been guilty of a lesser offense” had 820 been law at the time, they could have their sentence reversed, dismissed, or be resentenced, should the ballot measure pass.
It’s that part of the ballot measure that has attracted a number of donors.
“Really, the heart of this petition is about criminal justice reform,” said the group’s campaign manager Michelle Tilley. “And so we just began reaching out to groups that had that kind of funding that would be willing to help us with this endeavor.”
The Yes campaign registered its committee on Jan. 18, 2022, giving organizers more than a year head start on fundraising and campaigning. The group has raised $3 million and spent $2.7 million, leaving more than $350,000 in the bank. The opposition campaign, Protect Our Kids No 820, isn’t required to file a campaign finance report until after the election since they registered their committee on Jan. 31 of this year.
Only $427,000 of the $3 million raised comes from within Oklahoma. The rest comes from out-of-state groups interested in legalizing marijuana or criminal justice reform.
Many groups have donated to the campaign, from the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports a wide array of progressive causes, to the New Approach Advocacy Fund, an arm of the New Approach Political Action Committee, which supports state ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana across the country.
But the biggest donor is The Just Trust For Action, the 501c(4) non-profit arm of the North Carolina-based criminal justice reform organization The Just Trust. The organization has donated over $1 million. Since it is a 501c(4) “social welfare” group, commonly referred to as a “dark money” organization, it is allowed to keep its funders secret.
Drug Policy Action, a group backed by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Pricilla Chan’s charity, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Advocacy, donated $218,000 to the yes campaign.
Grey Gardner, the senior staff attorney at Drug Policy Action, said that one of the group’s main focuses is on drug decriminalization across the nation in order to “eliminate the harmful impacts of the criminal legal system on people’s lives.”
“We have to repair the harms that have been experienced by people impacted by criminalization in the past,” Gardner said. “So, that includes decarceration; it includes record sealing and expungement where possible. We need to reduce barriers for people and components of measures like SQ 820 are extremely important.”
The largest Oklahoma donor is Tulsa businesswoman Stacy Schusterman and her foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. Schusterman has given $300,000 to the yes campaign in both her personal capacity and through the foundation she chairs.
The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies is a donor to The Frontier.
“I support smart policies for Oklahoma that can have a positive impact on families, communities and our economy,” Schusterman said in a statement. “This includes SQ 820, which will safely regulate and tax recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and older.”
Schusterman said in the statement that many Oklahomans safely use medical marijuana, but the state continues to prosecute others who use the drug but don’t have their medical card.
“We should be prioritizing our law enforcement resources on protecting against actual threats to public safety, not prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses, while also working to make our criminal justice system more fair,” she said.
Pat McFerron, the campaign manager for the No campaign, said the campaign won’t “have the resources and the money the other side has,” so they must stay on message — passing this state question would be harmful to kids.
If passed, the question would prevent the courts, in most cases, from considering marijuana use when deciding child custody cases or as evidence in child neglect and endangerment cases. Like with the existing law on medical marijuana, in order to consider the usage or possession of recreational marijuana in these circumstances, it would have to be proven that by using or possessing it, a child is placed in unreasonable danger.
“It expressly limits the threshold for child endangerment and says that you can use this federally illegal substance around kids,” McFerron said. “Those are things that we think directly affect our kids and everything we do is about protecting kids.”
The no campaign has the backing of both Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Gentner Drummond. Both Republicans cited different reasons for their opposition – Stitt said it shouldn’t be legal in the state when it’s still illegal federally, while Drummond cited “organized crime rings” surrounding the current medical marijuana grows.
“There shouldn’t be a patchwork of states doing different things; we need the feds to tell us if it’s legal or illegal,” Stitt said.
Former Gov. Frank Keating is chairperson of the no campaign, which has been endorsed by several influential Oklahoma groups, including The State Chamber, Oklahoma Farm Bureau and Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association.
“SQ 820 has many unforeseen consequences that will no doubt add to the overall marijuana crisis in Oklahoma. Approving SQ 820 makes the situation worse without solving the problems that persist. We encourage Oklahomans to say ‘No’ to SQ 820,” Chad Warmington, president and CEO of The State Chamber, said in a statement.
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