Ohio Issue 1 addresses fighting drug epidemic, receives mixed response from legislators

CLEVELAND -- The drug epidemic, which has hit Ohio hard with thousands of people overdosing and dying each year, has inspired a ballot initiative for this November's election.

Ohio Issue 1 is a proposed drug treatment and rehabilitative constitutional amendment, that’s getting a lot of attention nationally and support from celebrities Grammy winner John Legend and Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg.

“Issue 1 is reclassifying minor drug possession as a misdemeanor, which is still a crime, but not felony conviction,” said Shakyra Diaz Director of Crime Survivors for Safety & Justice, with the Alliance for Safety & Justice.

Diaz said, Issue 1 will help the drug epidemic by focusing on treatment instead of felony convictions and prison time.

“It would allow people to not go to prison but stay in community and get access to treatment,” said Diaz.

However, many in the judicial system are adamantly opposed to Issue 1.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who rarely speaks out on issues, has been very vocal against Issue 1.

"I fear for the safety of our state," said O'Connor

Based on her experience, Justice O’Connor says, if you remove the threat of a felony charge and prison time, many offenders won’t get treatment, which currently happens in drug court.

“There’s no incentive,” said Justice O’Connor, “The argument is they need treatment instead of prison, but there’s nothing to make them take treatment and nothing to make them stick with it if they do decide to go to treatment.”

Justice O’Connor is also concerned that traffickers could take advantage of the new law, especially with dangerous drugs like fentanyl.

“Less than 20g of fentanyl will be an F4 or F5. You can get that bumped down a misdemeanor, but if you look at 19g of fentanyl that’s enough to kill 10,000 people,” said Justice O’Connor.

But Diaz said the new law won’t be exploited by traffickers and is meant only for low level offenders.

“This does not apply to trafficking,” said Diaz, “There is nothing in what we wrote that would prevent any prosecutor from charging someone with trafficking.”

Other key parts of Issue 1 include:

  • A graduated response for non-criminal probation violations, instead of sending them to prison, including felons.
  • Up to 25% reduction in prison sentences for inmates who participate in work, educational and rehabilitative programs.
  • Additional resources for crime victims.

“Issue 1 is about public safety,” said Diaz, “It’s about increasing treatment options for those who need it... we’d all be better off if people were positioned to be contributing members of society.”

However, Justice O’Connor has serious concerns regarding some of the language in Issue 1, and fears dangerous criminals will be released too soon.

“They say it won’t apply to murder, rape or child molestation. Those are nebulous terms in the criminal code,” said Justice O’Connor, ”It applies across the board, violent offenders, theft offenders and everything in between.”

Justice O’Connor thinks some of the “content” of Issue 1 is “admirable” but says it should’ve been done by statute, which garners more input and is more flexible, unlike a constitutional amendment which is written in stone.

Read the entire language of Issue 1, here.

More on the upcoming election, here.