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Supporters, foes line up on both sides of Issue 1, which would reduce drug possession penalties

Proposal would change Ohio drug laws
Posted at 7:30 PM, Sep 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-25 10:43:42-04

As Ohio struggles to overcome the nationwide opioid epidemic, voters will have a chance to make big changes to the state's drug laws.

Issue 1 would reduce penalties for possessing and using drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, meth and cocaine. Under the proposed law, having those drugs would be misdemeanors and not felonies. Judges would also be prohibited from sentencing users to jail or prison unless it's their third or more conviction in two years.

"Clearly the war on drugs, mass incarceration approach to drug use has failed," said J. Bennett Guss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio.  The group supports the proposed amendment to the state constitution. 

Opponents worry stripping judges of the power to send offenders to jail or prison will lessen the likelihood they'll get the treatment they need.

"You need a consequence, and Issue 1 removes the consequences of you not taking advantage of treatment," said Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor of The Supreme Court of Ohio.  "They'll say 'Well there are sanctions a judge can use. They can be put on probation.' Okay, they're on probation. The judge can order treatment. Okay, the judge ordered treatment. The person's walking away from treatment or not cooperating with treatment. Now what's the judge going to do? Bring you in? Give you a lecture? And then you walk out?"

Supporters estimate Issue 1 will slash the number of people in Ohio prisons, saving taxpayers $136 million a year.  That money would then be used for drug treatment and other programs.

 On Your Side Investigators discovered similar law changes in California and Oklahoma resulted in a lot less money saved.  According to state estimates in those states, California saved $29 million while Oklahoma saved $63.5 million.  

A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found both re-arrest and re-conviction rates dropped for drug offenses affected by the law change.

But not everyone's convinced changing drug laws would mean a safer Ohio.

"It's an epidemic and lessening our laws and making them some of the most lax drug laws in the country is not the path," said O'Connor.

Supporters say they've waited long enough for change to come from lawmakers in Columbus. Now, they say, voters will have the opportunity to enact real change in Ohio's drug laws.

"If the ability to give people harsher penalties and longer jail sentences and prison sentences would actually work, we wouldn't have this problem we're in right now," said Guss.