A new law in Oklahoma that allows penalties of up to life in prison for converting marijuana into hashish has created an unintended byproduct: accusations of an unduly harsh, unnecessary law that will further clog the state's already-overcrowded prison system.
"It makes little sense. I've never heard anything like it," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based advocacy organization. "It's just pure hysteria. Where did this idea even come from?"
The law -- which was overwhelmingly approved by the Oklahoma Senate last month and later signed by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin on April 29 -- was requested by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. But since the state has seen just about a dozen cases of hashish manufacturing in the past decade, the agency's spokesman, Mark Woodward, acknowledges that the new law is a "preventative" move.
"It's very rare," Woodward said of hashish production in the state. "It may be two or three years before we see another [case]. This is not going to be a prison-clogger here."
Under the new law, which specifically creates a new felony for converting marijuana to hashish, conviction of a first offense would result in a prison sentence anywhere from two years to life in prison. Sentences would be doubled for second offenses and those convicted would be ineligible for suspended sentences or probation.
"They're not going to do life, but the legalization groups get a hold of that and run with it," Woodward said. "Are we seeing people doing it in Oklahoma? No, but we want to be ready if and when that comes up."
Nadelmann and other critics of the new law told FoxNews.com that the measure is a "throwback in time" to the Draconian sentences connected to cocaine and crack cocaine in the 1980s. It also appears to be "evidence-free" since Oklahoma officials rarely see hashish manufacturing in the state, Nadelmann said.
"If you want to throw someone into prison for the rest of their life for making some hash, I imagine not cleaning your room should be good for six months in solitary," activist and marijuana advocate Vivian McPeak wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Of course, these people are in red state territory. You can garner some serious votes by throwing the worthless dope-heads into the bottomless pit in those parts. The fact that there is no record of anyone ever dying from hashish has absolutely no bearing there."
Oklahoma's incarceration rate routinely ranks in the top five nationally, and its prison population -- more than half of whom are nonviolent offenders -- has grown from 22,600 in 2000 to nearly 26,000 today. The state's prison budget, meanwhile, has increased from $366 million to $483 million last year.
State Rep. Sue Tibbs, R-Tulsa, who authored the legislation, referred inquiries to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the agency that requested the bill. But at least one local lawmaker acknowledged that political opponents from both sides may target an incumbent as being "soft on crime" for not supporting a law with harsher drug penalties.
"It's just the mindset up here, and it’s been beaten into these new senators and representatives that you cannot be soft on crime," state Sen. Richard Lerblance, a Democrat, told The Associated Press. "It was the same way when Democrats were in control."
"We just want to lock them up and throw away the key," said Lerblance, one of only two senators to oppose the hashish bill.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Kris Steele, a Republican, recognizes the "Shakespearean" irony that state lawmakers approved the hashish bill on the same day it approved a proposal to increase the use of electronic monitoring and community sentencing for low-risk offenders to cut Oklahoma's prison population.
"I think it just goes to show how far we have to go with cultural attitudes in the state among prosecutors and others that, although we've taken a couple of good baby steps, here we're doing something that's directly opposed to that," Steele told The Associated Press.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.