Ohio voters to decide on Issue 1

LISBON — Ohio voters will be asked to decide on Issue 1 this November, a controversial proposed change to the state constitution known as the drug and criminal justice policies initiative.

The amendment would reclassify drug offenses, making many felony possession charges misdemeanors. It would also change how probation would work for drug-related offenses and allow prison inmates to earn earlier releases for completing drug-treatment or counseling programs.

Further, it would prohibit judges from sending offenders to jail for possessing drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine, LSD and other controlled substances until after they have been charged three times within 24 months. Additionally, those who have been convicted and are currently serving time could request early release.

Money saved from people being released from the state prison system would reportedly go toward state-administered drug treatment programs and crime victims funds.

However, there are many on both sides of the aisle, including local officials who do not believe Issue 1 is the right answer to combat Columbiana County’s opioid and other drug-related problems.

“I’m against anything that encourages people to use drugs,” said Columbiana County Sheriff Ray Stone, questioning what good can come of lessening the laws and penalties regarding drug use.

Stone said the Ohio Task Force Commanders Association recently released information stating that Ohio Department of Corrections inmate statistics show there are about 49,500 people incarcerated in Ohio prisons and less than 15 percent of them are there for drug-related offenses. Only 2,688 are in prison for drug abuse offenses, which is 5.4 percent of the prison population.

Some have stated that Issue 1 would make Ohio an experiment, making the state more of a target for drug dealers and making users feel more free to experiment with drugs.

Stone pointed to some of the things which have happened in Colorado since the marijuana experiment there, with recreational use becoming legal in 2014. Stone said statistics he has read in the Denver Post show an increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities by 151 percent. Additionally, he said statistics he has read show the hospitalization from children and teens accidentally ingesting marijuana products are up 400 percent, and 70 percent of the licensed marijuana shops in Colorado have admitted to recommending the use of marijuana to pregnant women suffering from morning sickness.

Issue 1 would keep those having much more serious drugs than marijuana, such as lethal fentanyl, from seeing jail time. Fentanyl and heroin were identified as the drugs which led the the overdose of East Liverpool Patrolman Chris Green in May of 2017, when he wiped suspected drug residue off his shirt with his hand. It took three doses of Narcan, which reverses an opioid overdose, to revive Green.

Currently possessing a small amount of heroin or fentanyl is a low-degree felony, which often leads to community control or treatment programs on the first offense. But Issue 1 would make it a misdemeanor.

County Prosecutor Robert Herron said while he believes changes need to be made to the system to help those addicted to drugs, he does not believe it should be done through a constitutional change, which cannot easily be undone. He also has concerns that it does not provide any real funding for drug treatment and will have no positive impact.

“We have a huge problem,” Herron said, “but shooting ourselves in the foot is not the answer.”

Additionally, Herron said it would lead to 10,000 felons in Ohio requesting retroactive release.

“I think it’s totally misguided,” Herron said, adding it will put more drug addicted people and more guns on the streets. Those currently convicted of drug-related felonies are no longer entitled to own or possess firearms. Herron cautions reducing those felonies to misdemeanors could lead to dangerous drug dealers having the right to carry guns again in Ohio.

“I completely agree there needs to be compassion and treatment for those addicted,” Herron said. “This is not the right approach. It’s totally misguided and presents extraordinary and unnecessary danger and risk to the public.”

Those who are going through court-ordered treatment programs currently know the judge could impose prison time if they do not successfully complete the drug-counseling program. However if Issue 1 passes, Herron said it would no longer “make people accountable for their conduct.”

Stone said the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association has also issued a statement calling Issue 1 irresponsible and pointing to the ways it will make the job of law enforcement even more difficult as police attempt to search out and provide the evidence needed to convict those responsible for selling the drugs. The statement predicts the passage of Issue 1 would mean more drugs on the streets and more deaths from overdoses.