POSTED ON AUGUST 10, 2011:
Behind the Times
Oklahoma slow to follow social change trends
Seven states and the District of Columbia now issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Sixteen states now allow medical marijuana -- and Colorado soon could be the first to permit its full recreational use.
And Oklahoma? Well, our fair state not only amended its Constitution in 2004 to forbid same-sex marriage, but also repeatedly toughened drug laws and penalties over the last decade.
Now, two lawmakers want to expand state law to mandate drug testing of welfare applicants and all student athletes in public schools -- from elementary to college.
Whenever America zigs, Oklahoma zags.
It's like it is part of our DNA. Whatever social change blooms on the coast (usually, but not always, the West) often doesn't take root here for a generation or two.
And it typically doesn't bloom without a fight -- usually when the sanctimony set tramples civil liberties and personal freedoms in a last-gasp effort to thwart change.
But make no mistake: It eventually blooms in Oklahoma. And so it will be with same-sex marriage and drug laws.
The reddest necks won't like reading this, but many younger Oklahomans couldn't care less what people do behind closed doors -- so long as it doesn't hurt anybody else or infringe on others' rights.
Gay marriage and smoking pot may send some older folks and fundamentalist preachers into apoplexy, but the twenty-somethings with whom I visit are far more concerned about career prospects -- and whether they'll have to leave Oklahoma to realize their professional dreams.
A generation or two from now, I suspect many Oklahomans will wonder what all the fuss was about. Sort of like my generation does about X-rated movies, liquor-by-the-drink and pari-mutuel gambling on horse races.
The problem is, our meddlin' lawmakers can't resist the temptation to legislate morality, reinforcing a national perception that we're a puritanical, sanctimonious bunch out of step with the modern world.
It's one of the primary reasons we have trouble attracting new industry and significant business investment.
Even so, along comes state Rep. Guy Liebmann, R-Oklahoma City, and state Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, with efforts to burnish their tough-on-crime credentials.
Liebmann wants to require drug testing of applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, disqualifying anyone who tests positive from receiving temporary cash assistance for one year -- unless the person seeks substance abuse treatment.
"Federal law already gives states the right to test welfare recipients for use of controlled substances and sanction those recipients who test positively," Liebmann said. "My legislation would just make it mandatory. It's just a common-sense bill and one that is already being signed into law in other states."
Ritze's proposal to drug-test all student-athletes in public schools, is a knee-jerk response to the prescription overdose of Sooner football standout Austin Box.
Is there evidence we have a growing problem with drug abuse among welfare recipients or student-athletes? No. What we have here is grandstanding of the worst sort -- headline grabbing legislators offering solutions in search of a problem.
Surely we have more pressing issues. Like how to manage an over-crowded, under-staffed and under-funded prison system. Or improve an over-crowded, under-staffed and under-funded public school system.
Actually, there is some evidence that Oklahomans are coming to grips with the fact that our four-decade-long war on drugs is an abysmal failure. We've dispatched so many to prison for simple drug possession and use that we're bankrupting ourselves, not to mention destroying the lives of potentially productive, taxpaying citizens.
Interestingly, a SoonerPoll last year found that a majority of Oklahomans would like to be able to vote on whether to permit licensed physicians to prescribe medical marijuana. Some simply may be seeking to make a statement against pot, but I suspect most view it as a compassionate means to help the chronically or terminally ill.
Surprisingly, Gov. Mary Fallin was asked about marijuana in an on-line chat last week set up by the state Republican Party: "I'll just be right upfront with you," she said, "and tell you that I oppose legalizing marijuana in Oklahoma; it's not something that I support."
" ... I just feel like that marijuana use, if it's legalized, will lead to possible other substance abuse ... "
She acknowledged what current laws have wrought: "One of the things that I find over and over and over that just frankly sickens my heart is the amount of substance abuse, drug abuse, that we have in the state of Oklahoma and how many people have just frankly ruined their lives by spending a huge amount of time in our prison system."
Some long have argued -- particularly many Libertarians -- the best answer is to legalize, control and tax all currently illicit drugs, bringing it into the open and eliminating criminal profits.
That is behind an initiative petition drive in Colorado aimed at forcing a statewide vote on full recreational use of marijuana, the so-called Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.
One of the high-profile supporters of the effort, former Denver police officer Tony Ryan, put it this way: "During my 36 years as a Denver cop I arrested more people for marijuana than I care to remember, but it didn't amount to one bit of good for our citizens. Keeping marijuana illegal doesn't do anything to reduce marijuana use, but it does benefit the gangs and cartels who control the currently illegal marijuana trade."
If Coloradans get to vote on the issue, and approve it, how long before other states follow suit?
It's the same scenario for same-sex marriage.
Now that Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia are issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, other states are warming to the idea that all Americans -- regardless of sexual preference -- should be treated equally.
Just look at Montana. A recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll found that a majority of that state's voters support domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.
I know that 76 percent of Oklahoma voters in 2004 endorsed the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. But that was seven years ago.
And if Montana -- frontier, Marlboro-man Montana -- is open to the idea of domestic partnerships, well ... let's just say that social change often is slow, but when it takes root, it can bloom quickly.
-- (Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net)
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