Ohio Chief Justice Warns of ‘Catastrophic’ Effects if Voters Approve ‘Issue 1’ in November

Maureen O'Conner

Every Ohio voter will soon be targeted by a well-funded ad campaign, attempting to lure them into voting in favor of Issue 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Issue 1 attempts to tackle a complex problem, drug addiction, in which a growing number of Ohioans are in and out of prison without getting the help they need, costing you the taxpayer millions of dollars.

While the problem may be legitimate, the fix being offered by Issue 1 would be nothing short of “catastrophic,” according to Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

In a statement posted at Court News Ohio, O’Connor concedes the problem. “Too many people in our criminal justice system are there because of substance abuse disorders. We know that substance abuse disorders are a major driver in criminal justice spending. We also know that through long-term treatment and therapy, those addicted can lead law-abiding, productive lives.”

But you can count on one thing. The TV and radio ads will over-simplify the problem and then offer a poisonous solution, O’Connor says.

Issue 1 on Ohio’s November 6 ballot purports to address this problem by reducing drug possession penalties and directing the savings from reduced incarcerations to expanded drug treatment and resources for crime victims. A superficial reading of Issue 1 could lead voters to see it as a thoughtful, compassionate, and reasonable response to a difficult and intractable problem.  It seems so, until you peel back its layers and see that it will have catastrophic consequences for our state. If Issue 1 passes, Ohio may have some of the most lenient drug crime laws in the nation. We could easily become a magnet for substance abuse activity because there will be, in effect, very little consequence to engaging in such behavior.”

Many of the ads will suggest Issue 1 is about marijuana and low-level drug crimes. It is not.

It is about violently toxic opioids from which people overdose and die every day. Fentanyl is one of the most deadly, and the chief justice warns it would be treated no different than an ounce of marijuana in terms of the criminal accountability of those who possession it.

According to the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), drug overdose (poisoning) deaths in Ohio increased from 3,050 in 2015 to 4,050 in 2016. This is roughly four times the number of people who die in traffic accidents in Ohio annually.

“The ODH reported that 58.2 percent of the overdose deaths in Ohio in 2016 involved fentanyl compared with only 4 percent in 2013,” O’Connor writes. “This dramatic rise is due to the fact that fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, it takes just 2 milligrams of fentanyl – an amount barely able to cover Abraham Lincoln’s beard on a penny – to kill the average person.”

Fentanyl is addictive, lethal, and simple to manufacture, she adds. “It is easy to smuggle into our country from foreign sources, even using express mail envelopes. Its potency is not just a problem for abusers. It can be absorbed through the skin, putting freight handlers and first responders at serious risk.”

Issue 1 would make the possession of powdered fentanyl in amounts less than 20 grams a misdemeanor subject to probation.

That means a drug offender caught with less than 20 grams would get no possibility of jail time.

O’Connor puts that in perspective.

Since the lethal dose of fentanyl is just 2 milligrams (one-thousandth of a gram), 19 grams of fentanyl is enough to kill approximately 10,000 people. So if Issue 1 passes, an offender charged with possession of 19 grams of fentanyl would automatically get probation and could only be charged with a misdemeanor. Issue 1 does this by constitutionally dictating that any drug possession conviction that is now a Felony 4 or Felony 5 would be reduced to a misdemeanor. The requirement of probation ties the hands of the judge when it comes to sentencing. The judge MUST sentence an individual to probation for these offenses under Issue 1. This is unconscionable. Drug dealers would be incentivized to distribute fentanyl in amounts less than 20 grams so those caught possessing it would avoid incarceration.”

And it’s not just fentanyl that is treated this way by the Issue 1 initiative.

It’s the same for cocaine, K2, meth and heroin – all carrying current felonies would become misdemeanors.

O’Connor asks a valid question that few seem to have thought about:

“Who wouldn’t want to set up their drug distribution business in Ohio knowing that possessing 19 grams of fentanyl or lethal amounts of other drugs would result only in a first class misdemeanor with mandatory probation?”

No more ‘carrot and stick’?

O’Connor predicts the adoption of Issue 1 would undermine Ohio’s drug courts:

“Severely hampering the use of our very effective drug court programs across this state. Drug courts would be impeded by taking jail time off the table. We know, through multiple studies, that drug courts are effective only when they combine the ‘carrot’ of treatment and support with the “stick” of judicial accountability, including incarceration when needed. It is this carrot-and-stick approach that enables judges and drug court teams to use a variety of tools to help people overcome addiction. But Issue 1, while providing a lot of carrots by expanding treatment, takes away the stick.”

Many Ohioans will likely be tricked into thinking Issue 1 is something other than what it is, she says. They will undoubtedly be deceived by ads suggesting it is for minor drug crimes, mostly having to do with marijuana.

Without the incentive of jail time, O’Connor predicts the result would be a severe drop-off in drug court participation at the very moment when it is needed most should voters approve Issue 1.

“Keep in mind that special interest groups spent more than $4 million to put Issue 1 on the ballot. Those same special interest groups will fully fund a campaign before this November’s election that will try to mislead and confuse you regarding Issue 1. Please don’t be fooled. Do your homework on Issue 1.”

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Anthony Accardi is a writer and reporter for The Ohio Star.







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