Election Guide, Issue 1: The Right Approach for Drug Law Reform?

Supporters say the ballot initiative, which would make felony drug possession charges misdemeanors, will help decrease the number of nonviolent offenders in Ohio's prisons. But opponents claim it will make the state's drug crisis worse.

Ohio voters will get to decide in November on a constitutional amendment that would reduce penalties for non-violent drug crimes. The ballot initiative, called Issue 1, has already won some high-profile supporters.

But while lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they support its overall aims, some Republicans question whether the proposal is the right way to achieve those goals.

And some opponents have taken to spreading talking points with dubious truth — including claims that Issue 1 will make possession of large amounts of deadly drugs a mere misdemeanor.

Supporters gathered more than 305,000 valid signatures from voters across the state to land the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment on the ballot.

The proposal seeks to reduce Ohio’s prison population by reclassifying nonviolent fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug possession or use crimes as first-degree misdemeanors. The amendment would make the maximum penalty for such crimes 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, and first and second offenses would be punishable by probation only. It would also direct the state to give half a day’s credit up to 25 percent of an inmate’s sentence for each day of rehab or educational work completed.

Under Issue 1, prisoners currently incarcerated could petition courts to make the changes to sentencing classifications retroactive, meaning those who were imprisoned under the old rules could be eligible for release.

Supporters say the incarceration cost savings netted by the early release of those inmates would be funneled back into drug treatment programs and other rehabilitation efforts.

A number of Democrat state lawmakers, as well as social service groups, have applauded the measure.

Cincinnati-based State Sen. Cecil Thomas is a member of the Ohio General Assembly’s Criminal Sentencing Commission. That commission found that Ohio’s drug possession incarcerations have increased by a third. The first-term Democrat says the ballot initiative is the right approach to rolling back those increases and reducing the number of people in the state’s prison system.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, also of Cincinnati, says he’s supportive of the effort’s overall goal, but that legislation, not an amendment, is the best way to deal with the issue. That’s a sentiment other Republicans in the General Assembly share: many feel that sentencing reform is necessary, but worry about locking something so specific into the state’s constitution.

The ballot initiative could play into November’s gubernatorial race. Democrat candidate Richard Cordray has signaled his support for the effort. Republican Mike DeWine has blasted Cordray for his support, and he’s not alone in opposing it. Several Hamilton County officials — including Democrats Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco and Sheriff Jim Neil — held a press conference decrying the provision. And the state’s top legal association is also opposed.

"While many agree that Ohio’s drug laws merit change, Issue 1 is the wrong solution,” Ohio State Bar Association President Robin Weaver wrote recently as the OSBA announced its opposition.

But Issue 1 has also garnered support from some unexpected places — including an endorsement from Republican and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Some opponents of Issue 1, including DeWine, say that it will keep people with large quantities of deadly drugs like fentanyl out of jail. But supporters point out that prosecutors will still have discretion in charging dealers with trafficking — an offense that some supporters like Cordray agree should have heftier penalties.

In a September interview, DeWine claimed that Issue 1 would allow someone caught with pounds of fentanyl to stay out of jail. But that's not true. Ohio's current drug statutes define "bulk amounts" of illicit, Schedule II drugs like fentanyl — the quantities under which someone would be charged with trafficking instead of simple possession — as 40 grams or five times the maximum daily dose of the drug. In the case of fentanyl, the maximum amount that would fall under those rules according to professional prescribing guides is about .05 grams. Anyone caught with that amount or more would be charged with a third-degree trafficking felony — one not covered by Issue 1.

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