In November, Ohioans will have the chance to vote on Issue 1, a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that will reform drug sentencing and treatment. This ballot issue outlines four main changes to the criminal justice system: it reduces low-level, nonviolent drug possession felonies (F4 and F5) to misdemeanors, applying to both current and past offenses; increases the amount of time that can be taken off someone’s prison sentence for participating in treatment programs while serving time; prohibits someone on probation from being sentenced to additional prison time for minor violations, such as missing an appointment on account of not having transportation; and uses the money gained by fewer people being behind bars to fund a grant program with the purpose of improving and increasing drug addiction treatment opportunities in communities throughout Ohio.
Issue 1 is not only designed to end certain harmful practices of the criminal justice and prison systems, but to also provide more and better treatment to meet the full spectrum of needs of a person on their life-long journey of recovery. It puts its money where its mouth is. Upon Issue 1 passing, we citizens will have our work cut out for us to ensure the systems and agencies we have in place remain accountable to the amendment, but it will be a step in the direction of treating our family members, friends, and neighbors with more compassion, dignity, and due diligence.
There has been vocal opposition to Issue 1, much of which has come from the criminal justice establishment, as recently reported by The Athens News, and in the form of misinformation. Drug trafficking, which does apply to the quantities of fentanyl Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor mentioned in her recent letter, would remain higher level felonies. As with trafficking, re-sentencing in Issue 1 does not apply to those with charges of violent crime. While many members of the establishment claim that successful programs like drug courts will diminish under Issue 1, its new grant program would actually make drug courts more widely available, whereas now many counties do not even have them.
The Ohio Bar Association is one such establishment organization that has taken a stance against Issue 1, citing “unintended consequences”. Considering that fines paid to the court for receiving a felony are in the thousands of dollars and misdemeanor fines are in the hundreds, one can only imagine what those “unintended consequences” might be that the Bar is so concerned about. Meanwhile, the citizens of Ohio have spoken. The petitions to get this issue on the ballot collected the second highest number of signatures in our state’s history, second only to the referendum defeating SB5 in 2011.
Last year the United Nations and the World Health Organization called on countries to repeal laws that criminalize drug use and possession. Other states have already passed decriminalization laws similar to Issue 1. With Proposition 47, California reduced nonviolent drug possession felonies to misdemeanors in 2014. As of 2016, their rate of drug overdose mortality is half the national average. Some may scoff at a progressive state implementing these policies, but in 2016 70% of Oklahoma voters opted to do the same with State Question 780, and it's already working. Then there is Portugal, which decriminalized possession of user-quantities of all drugs in 2001, and has seen exceptional drops in rates of drug overdose, infectious disease, and drug-related crime.
Substance abuse is considered a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Policing and imprisonment have quite obviously done next to nothing to end and prevent nationwide drug epidemics, as they wouldn’t for any other public health concern. Ohio has risen to No. 2 (No. 2!) in the nation for rate of overdose mortality, behind West Virginia. Chief Justice O’Connor conjectures that Ohio could become a “magnet for substance abuse” and that drug dealers will flock here. Sadly, what she offers as a worst case scenario is already the every day reality in our state.
And this is history repeating itself. While the opioid epidemic, primarily affecting poor and middle class white people, has garnered national sympathy and attention, communities of color were locked up, ignored, and actively destroyed during the crack cocaine epidemic. We have a responsibility to pass Issue 1 to retroactively reclassify tens of thousands of people’s felonies, to do one small thing to make up for this country’s racist “War on Drugs” and “tough on crime” policies.
It’s time to invest in sane and humane solutions to end the travesty that has torn apart families and left grandparents with babies to raise, caused outbreaks of infectious disease, and put prisons way over capacity, worsening safety for both inmates and prison employees. Someone once said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result. It follows that insanity is allowing 14 human beings to die every day from a preventable problem while making empty promises that law enforcement, courts, and the legislature can un-sink the ship they have been captain of.
Andrea Reany is a resident of Nelsonville.