Voters have a single statewide issue to decide in the general election, but it’s arguably the most urgent matter on the entire ballot considering Ohio’s continuing battle with opioid abuse.
As if anyone needs a reminder, 4,800 Ohioans died last year from accidental drug overdoses, including 32 in Hancock County.
Issue 1 is not the right pill for what ails us. It would radically alter the way many drug offenders are charged and processed through the criminal justice system. Other criminals could catch a break, too.
The proposed constitutional amendment would require criminal offenses of obtaining, possessing or using any drug, including fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD and other controlled substances, to be charged only as misdemeanors.
It would also prohibit a jail sentence for any such drug offense until a third offense within 24 months.
Those provisions alone would shake up the courts and prisons, but two others could add substantial administrative costs to the process, and likely undermine the work of probation and drug courts already in place.
For one, Issue 1 would require sentence reductions of up to 25 percent for anyone incarcerated for any crime except murder, rape or child molestation, if they are participating in work or education programming while in custody. That means some serving time for serious assaults, kidnappings or robberies could get out of prison early.
Another allows anyone convicted of possessing or using any drug to have their conviction reduced to a misdemeanor, regardless of whether they have completed their sentence or if it occurred before the amendment goes into effect. That means hundreds, if not thousands, could be released from prison.
If nothing else, the timing is bad for Issue 1. Last year, about 70 percent of the overdose deaths involved fentanyl or synthetic opioids. Under the proposal, even someone found with enough fentanyl to kill 10,000 people could not be sentenced to jail. That would send the wrong message to dealers, not just users.
Supporters claim Issue 1 would reduce the number of people in state prisons for low-level crimes and direct the prisons’ savings toward more drug treatment while helping crime victims.
But the actual savings is unknown, and this is no guarantee the amendment would not simply shift the costs to local governments.
Certainly, Ohio is desperate to find answers to its drug problems, and it’s hard to argue against sending fewer people to prison for nonviolent crimes while increasing treatment options for those who struggle with addiction.
But the numbers of drug courts and addicts in recovery are increasing around the state where the “stick-and-carrot” approach appears to be working. Without the stick, the possibility of jail or prison, many may not be motivated to reach for the carrot, or treatment.
Besides, relatively few of those charged with fourth- or fifth-degree felony drug offenses end up in jail, with even fewer in prison, unless they repeatedly violate probation or drug court rules.
Ohio does need new ideas and new ways to combat the drug epidemic. But Issue 1 is too extreme and, worse yet, would be added to the Ohio Constitution if approved. That means any changes would have to go back before voters in order to be amended.
Our drug laws don’t belong in the state Constitution. A better path is for the Legislature to pursue reasonable, common-sense laws that provide more sentencing and treatment options, rather than limiting judicial discretion.