Why Does Issue 1 — the Statewide Ballot Measure to Reduce Drug Penalties — Have to be a Constitutional Amendment?

Much of the swollen consternation over Issue 1, the statewide ballot measure that would reduce penalties for drug offenses, concerns the fact that it's a proposed constitutional amendment.

"Amending the Ohio Constitution to recast this state's drug laws is like using a chainsaw for surgery," wrote the Plain Dealer editorial board in its proudly anti-democratic opposition editorial last month. "It's anything but precise. And once it's embedded in the state's constitution, a do-over is all but impossible."

It's the legislature, not the voters, the PD and judicial groups argue, who are smart enough to deal with this "important but politically volatile and complicated matter."

"Putting this issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment subject to emotional voting, not careful review, is dangerous and wrong," the PD wrote.

The Columbus Dispatch, too, said that while the state is sorely in need of drug reform, a constitutional amendment would be a "complicated and questionable" solution.

"At the same time, we implore state lawmakers and the next governor to take up these problems with open minds and find better ways to achieve [the results the amendment seeks to achieve]," the Dispatch opined.

The Toledo Blade editorial board sang a variation on the same tune, in its editorial titled "good intentions, wrong tool."

"Ohio laws regarding drug abuse, drug trafficking, and drug possession should be made by our elected officials with the advice of Ohio judges, prosecutors, police, treatment specialists, and other practitioners in the field," the Blade decided.

But not, of course, by the lowly voters. Never mind the fact that elected officials are elected for the explicit purpose of representing their constituents. This is as central a tenet as any in our political system, and yet it's constantly disregarded by those in power.

We voters are far too stupid and too emotional, apparently, to deal with such a complicated problem. Yet all these newspapers and judges are prepared to acknowledge that opioids have ravaged our state.

In 2017, Cuyahoga County saw 822 opioid overdose deaths, an increase of 156 from the previous year. Statewide (using 2016 data), Ohio trailed only West Virginia and New Hampshire in overdose deaths per capita. It's a gruesome scourge. But when the voters try to find a solution to this grave and widespread issue, one that's now inextricably linked with the criminal justice system, it's dangerous. It's wrong.

At a City Club forum on Issue 1 yesterday, Stephen JohnsonGrove of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, arguing in favor of the amendment, invited the audience to picture three charts: one depicting prison population, one depicting prison budgets, and one depicting overdose deaths.

"They just go up," he said, referring to all three. "If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to get more of the same.

So what does Issue 1 do differently?

Among other things, it will:
  • Allow sentence reductions of incarcerated individuals, (except those in prison for murder, rape, or child molestation), by up to 25 percent if the individual participates in rehabilitative, work, or educational programming.
  • Recategorize, from felonies to misdemeanors, the crimes of obtaining, possessing, or using any drug such as fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, and other controlled substances.
  • Prohibit jail time as a sentence for obtaining, possessing, or using such drugs until an individual's third offense within 24 months.
  • Allow an individual convicted of obtaining, possessing, or using any such drug prior to the effective date of the amendment to ask a court to reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor, regardless of whether the individual has completed the sentence.
  • Require any available funding, based on projected savings, to be applied to state administered rehabilitation programs and crime victim funds.
  • Require a graduated series of responses, such as community service, drug treatment, or jail time, for minor, non-criminal probation violations.
Proponents project that nearly $100 million could be saved every year by reducing the state's engorged prison population. (And remember, the villainous private prison industry would love to keep low-level drug offenders locked up as long as possible.) Ohio prisons are overflowing with these low-level offenders increasingly viewed as commodities in a profiteering carceral industry.

The amendment has been "written carefully" JohnsonGrove said "to create more safety and produce better outcomes." Much too carefully, evidently! The Plain Dealer editorial board, which couldn't resist the opportunity to note the stupidity of the electorate once again, characterized the amendment — which it earlier described as "anything but precise" — as "an amendment of almost 2,000 words, an amendment few Ohioans will find the time to read or have the knowledge to interpret."

Good God! Who do they think we are?! 

These newspapers are worried about "unforeseen consequences" — drug dealers relocating en masse to take advantage of leniency, notably — but these are conjectural outcomes. The chief outcome would be to codify an idea that is supported by all but the outermost fringes of the radical right: that rehabilitation is better than prison time for drug users and for the society at large.

Why are all these judges so eager to keep locking up low-level drug offenders? Wasn't that the strategy favored by the War on Drugs, which experts domestically and internationally now regard as an unqualified public policy disaster? Judges are keen to hold onto their power, it turns out. In the words of Common Pleas Judge David Matia, who argued against the amendment yesterday, they want to be able to enforce "accountability."

The most obvious rejoinder, though, to the argument that amending drug laws should be handled by smart, emotionally detached state legislators is that they haven't handled it. And there's no reason to suspect that they will. In Cuyahoga County, our state legislature does not represent us, and taking matters into our own hands to improve the society is exactly what voters are supposed to to in a Democracy. 

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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