Why the Defeat of Issue #1 is Especially Troubling in Ohio

Ohio voters decided the fate of Issue #1 this November, with 63.4% voting “No”. A “Yes” would have radically shifted Ohio drug law by reclassifying many drug-related offenses (such as obtaining, possession, and use) as misdemeanors, rather than felonies.

The defeat of this measure is significant for one primary reason in Ohio: off all states, ours has the second highest rate of opioid-related deaths. According to a state report, that number had reached 4,854 by 2017. Montgomery was the county that topped the list, with a record of 521 overdoses.

Addiction is a problem, nationwide: and it is especially a problem at home. Solving that problem requires more than just a punitive approach; it requires a humane one.

For years criminalization, both at the state and federal level, has been the primary response mode for drug-related issues. Labels, such as “felon” are used on many non-violent offenders, placing them into the same category as rapists and murderers. While this may be a temporary measure to solve a public crisis, it ends up doing more harm, ultimately, than protection.

Rather than focusing on rehabilitation, it merely places a criminal label on those who are often struggling with addiction problems. Rehabilitation is what Issue #1 stood for: a more treatment, rather than punitive-focused approach to the drug crisis.

In addition to the misdemeanor clause, its provisions included prohibiting jail time for drug offenses until the third offense in 24 months, and allowed individuals previously convicted of drug “felonies” to petition the court to reduce them to misdemeanor. Another one of the law’s provisions would have requiring any projected savings to be re-allocated to state rehabilitation programs and crime victim funds.

Other states that have “defelonized” drug possession include California, Connecticut, Utah, Alaska, and Oklahoma, according to the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center.

Issue #1 was very divisive among party lines. Many prominent Ohio Republicans, including now-governor Mike DeWine, opposed Issue #1, while most Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, came out in support of it. The measure also drew considerable support from many social justice organizations and out-of-state philanthropy groups, including the Facebook-owned Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

As predicted, much of the opposition played up the “too soft on crime” narrative. While certain prominent Republicans like Newt Gingrich surprisingly broke with ranks to support Issue #1, others, such as Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’ Connor, stuck to partisan lines. According to O’ Connor, the measure would weaken the drug courts, and their power to use incarceration as a coercive method to get offenders into treatment.

Another one of the overarching fears was that Issue #1, if passed, would embolden local drug traffickers in Ohio. With more leniency, they would be more likely to come and set up businesses in Ohio. The only problem there is that much of this “business” occurs not only on the streets but in offices by local prescribers as well.  

Some of it is even through Medicaid: according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between June 2016 and May 2017 alone, “nearly one-in-six”, or sixteen percent of Medicaid beneficiaries were given opioid prescriptions. Of these, 21,146 either had cancer or were in hospice care at the time; 40,500 of the recipients were 18 or younger.

Another startling number, by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, echoes the pharmaceutical “business” of prescribing in Ohio: in 2015, Ohio providers gave 85.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons (9.96 million in total). This number superseded the national U.S. rate that same year, of 70 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons.

If the fear of “drug business” was a governing factor in the opposition to Issue #1, then it should also take into count where the business occurs behind closed doors. However, contrary to this fear, Issue #1 WOULD NOT have reduced penalties for people found trafficking. Instead, it would kept in place the “felony” classification for those convicted of sale and distribution.

For lower-level offenders, though, the label “felony” comes with many long-term consequences. Among these obstacles are finding a job, receiving welfare assistance, voting in elections, or being eligible to take out loans.

Who do these consequences affect the most: poor people. Ohio, in case you did not know, covers part of Northern Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in the country, and also one of the regions most affected by the opioid crisis, as noted by the NIH.

Overall, four times as many people are arrested for possessing, rather than selling opioids, according to Human Rights Watch. Even in cases where the possession is only a small amount, offenders will still receive a felony conviction.

In many cases, the “criminal” targets have been African-American. Unfortunately, while the framing of substance abuse as a human rights issue is long overdue, it is one that was absent when most of the victims were black. As a result, black communities have and will continue to bear the brunt of “suspicion” by any measures aimed against criminal justice reform.

This age-old drug policy is dangerous, especially for those it has targeted in the past. Now it is dangerous in the face of a new, national epidemic. Ohio’s rejection of Issue #1 is a decision that will only end up harming those who fall into communities most affected by substance abuse: lower-income and people of color.

Is incarceration the answer? 11% of inmates with substance use problems find adequate treatment at federal, state prisons and local prisons, according to a 2014 report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

Additionally, an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, comparing data from all 50 states, found no relationship between drug offender imprisonment rates by state and three key areas: rates of drug use, arrests, and overdoses.

The failure of Issue #1 should be a rallying call for us to reframe the narrative of substance abuse: especially in Ohio. This requires pointing to the failure of the War on Drugs policy, not just now, but back to the 1980s, during its weaponization against communities of color.

Treatment over penalization needs to be the solution. In November 2018, a majority of Ohio voters said “No” to a measure supporting that: a measure reducing drug penalties that would have reallocated eventual savings towards the goal of rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. Our collective “No” rebukes that effectively. It continues a policy and a mindset that is dangerous for those struggling with substance abuse. It paints them more as a human threat, than a person in need of help.

“Just Say No” is not an answer in 2018. Neither is imprisonment.

Alexander Chavers

I am a recently graduated college student from the George Washington University, with an M.A. in Media & Strategic Communications. I am a passionate writer and want to use my skills to better inform the public on current public affairs issues. On the side I am also a creative writer who enjoys writing novels and spooky short stories.

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Volume 10, Issue 12, Posted 1:14 PM, 12.07.2018