Ohio Residents Should Have Taken Chance on Issue 1

Regardless of how these midterm elections went overall, there are many outcomes that we all can and should be proud of. The U.S. went from having its lowest voter turnout rates in midterm history in 2014 — with just 34 percent voter participation — to one of the highest, with almost 50 percent of eligible residents turning out to vote. An estimated 114 million people cast votes, the first time in U.S. history that a midterm election collected over 100 million votes.

Some broken barriers include two Muslim women being voted into Congress for the first time in U.S. history, along with the first Native women and the first Korean woman. Colorado elected the nation’s first governor to be an openly gay man. Several states elected their first female governors, others elected their first female senators, and still others elected Black women to the House of Representatives for the first time. Texas elected its first Latina congresswomen, while Virginia had the first transgender gubernatorial nominee from either of the two major parties. The 116th Congress will certainly be one of the most diverse bodies in congressional history.

Ohio had a chance to join Florida in making groundbreaking criminal justice reform by passing Issue 1, a progressive amendment to the state constitution. If passed, the amendment would have prohibited judges from sending people to jail for violating probation terms (unless they had committed new crimes), reallocated money from inmate care to drug treatment and crime-victim programs, and allowed people convicted of drug crimes to petition the court for resentencing. Issue 1 would have also cut prison time for individuals who complete vocational or rehabilitation programs, except those convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation. It also would have dictated that any fourth or fifth-degree felony drug possession conviction be made a misdemeanor, meaning that most drug possession crimes would warrant no jail time.

The issue was hotly contested before the election. Many notable Republican candidates — including Ohio’s newly-elected Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor — argued that, although Issue 1 seemed well-intentioned, it would have a devastating effect and seriously endanger Ohio residents, and would ultimately gut the drug court systems currently in place.

DeWine has been involved in Ohio politics since 1981 and has been the state’s Attorney General since 2011. In 2011, Ohio attempted its first significant opioid crackdown when DeWine and then-Governor John Kasich busted numerous pill mills and limited the prescription time for opioids. Six years later, in 2017, Ohio had the nation’s third highest opioid-related overdose rate. Out of 4,329 Ohio deaths in 2017, 83 percent were caused by opioid overdoses. As I have explained in previous columns, these crackdowns are cyclical; as long as the government continues to try and put out drug fires, more will continue to pop up in even worse forms, notably heroin and fentanyl (“Opioid Epidemic Cannot Be Fought Through War on Drugs,” Feb. 17, 2017).

Considering the continued failure of Ohio politicians to effectively deal with the opioid epidemic, you would think that politicians like Kasich, DeWine, and O’Connor would realize that the methods they have been using for years are not working. You would think that they would be desperate to save more lives.

Instead, it seems that they and the 65 percent of Ohio voters who opposed Issue 1 are more interested in keeping their vulnerable constituents and fellow community members locked up instead of getting them the help that they truly need.
There were two main concerns with Issue 1. One came from O’Connor, who argued that someone in possession of 20 grams of fentanyl — enough to kill 10,000 people — could get out of prison time completely if Issue 1 were to be passed; the other was that Issue 1 would render drug courts obsolete.

However, upon further inspection, these concerns were minimal. The likelihood that any individual would be holding 20 grams of fentanyl without the intention to sell is incredibly slim; anyone holding 20 grams of fentanyl would still be charged and sent to jail for intention to sell or for drug trafficking. Finally, the concern that Issue 1 would gut drug courts was simply contradictory. Issue 1 was intended to fix the shortcomings of the current way we deal with the drug epidemic, including drug court; it would have essentially replaced drug courts while continuing its legacy of rehabilitation for drug offenders.

Ultimately, Ohio politicians deceived their constituents. They misrepresented facts, and they played on Ohioans’ existing fears. Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer said, “Underneath [Issue 1] is a cry for help from all the families dealing with drug addiction.” Pfeifer is right — families have been asking for help for years and will continue to cry out if new reforms are not enacted soon.
Issue 1 may not have solved all the drug problems in Ohio, but it would have been a fresh, genuine effort to alleviate not only the problems of drug addiction, but also mass incarceration. Policy Matters Ohio estimated that Issue 1 would have reduced the Ohio prison population by more than 10,000 people, saving $136 million a year.

That $136 million could have been sent directly to helping victims of crime to funding drug rehabilitation centers — centers that are currently dismally underfunded. This is not even counting the amount of people that would receive reduced sentences by completing education or rehabilitation programs while incarcerated. Finally, anyone who has been convicted of a drug possession felony is currently barred from 573 different professions in Ohio; on the other hand, misdemeanor drug convictions only bar people from 250 careers. Issue 1 would have allowed these people to not only help themselves, but to help their community.

Ultimately, Ohioans — politicians and constituents alike — failed the members of their community who are struggling with addiction. Radical problems require radical solutions. By voting against changing the status quo, Ohioans decided that they are OK with the current state of the opioid epidemic. They decided that they were OK with having one of the highest death rates in the country, a rate that will only continue to rise.