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A Tough Vote: Ohio ballot measure would change drug possession penalties

State Issue 1 is a controversial constitutional amendment that aims to reduces penalties for lower-level drug crimes. (WKRC)
State Issue 1 is a controversial constitutional amendment that aims to reduces penalties for lower-level drug crimes. (WKRC)
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CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Drug deaths and drug overdoses are up, according to the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition.

Nine deaths in just a week are a grim reminder that the epidemic is not going away. With the epidemic as a background, Ohio voters will decide in November on a new approach.

State Issue 1 is a controversial constitutional amendment that aims to reduces penalties for lower-level drug crimes.

In the parade of sadness that is arraignment court, you only have to wait a few minutes before you notice a pattern. The steady stream of drug-related cases is filling our courts and our jails and prisons. State Issue 1 would either make things better or worse.

"There is so much investment in punishing people and locking them up in prison cells and so little investment in the healing that people need to transform their lives," said Stephen Johnsongrove of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center.

"I believe as a result of this amendment, should it pass, people will die," said Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court.

Issue 1 is a petition-generated amendment that would turn the lowest level felony drug possession charges into misdemeanors. Currently, those low-level felonies can get someone six to 12 or six to 18 months in state prison. A misdemeanor is up to six months in county jail.

But under this amendment, there is no jail time for the first two possession convictions, just probation. The theory is fewer people incarcerated means less cost for the state -- money that would be redirected toward drug treatment.

"Right now, there is a traditional way of doing things which over-relies on incarceration. Issue 1 is a mandate from the people of Ohio. We don't want you to lock up our family members just because they're addicted to a substance. We need healing and treatment," said Johnsongrove.

But opponents, like O'Connor, says Issue 1 could backfire.

O'Connor says Issue 1 would destroy the state's drug courts, places where charges can be wiped out if the defendant stays clean and gets a job or an education. O'Connor says without at least the threat of prison, there's no incentive for the defendant to turn things around.

"And if you come back to court for a status conference and the judge asks you: 'How are you doing on your treatment?' 'Oh, I didn't do my treatment.' 'How are you doing on your GED?' 'I didn't even try that.' 'And what about the job?' 'I haven't gotten one.' The judge cannot do anything to you," said O'Conner.

Issue 1 does not reduce penalties for drug trafficking, only possession. But the two sides differ on whether someone who possesses drugs, even for a low-level felony, might also be selling them.

One big question is money. A lot of well-intentioned proposals have crashed on the shores of inadequate funding, and drug treatment is not cheap..

Issue 1 advocates say the measure would save $100 million a year, 70 percent of which would go to drug treatment. Opponents doubt the savings are that big and say Issue 1 is dangerous, money-saving or not.

It's a tough call for voters as the drug abuse epidemic rages on.

Issue 1 also lets non-violent inmates reduce their sentences by earning credit for things like job training or education while locked up. It also prohibits prison time for minor paperwork probation violations.

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Ohio's gubernatorial candidates are divided on Issue 1. Democrat Richard Cordray supports it. Republican Mike DeWine opposes it.

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