Issue 1 sparks debate on needs of addicts

Ohio residents will vote on Issue 1 in the Nov. 6 ballot. Along with the goal of reducing the number of people in state prisons and increasing funds for things such as treatment or rehabilitation programs, Issue 1 would make felony four and felony five drug possessions misdemeanors.

Stephen JohnsonGrove
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“I’m passionate about this because Ohio has been shooting itself in its foot for at least 50 years … with it’s failed war on drugs and mass incarceration,” said Stephen JohnsonGrove, one of the authors of Issue 1 who also leads its campaigning. “We could do better. We could be safer, healthier, with less incarceration, with more of that money back into the community where it belongs.”

Currently, if a person is found with more than the “bulk amount” of a drug, but less than five times the bulk amount, they could be facing nine-18 months in jail, fines up to $5,000 or both, as well as other possible penalties. The bulk amount changes depending on the substance, and each amount can be found in the Ohio Revised Code.

Judges throughout Ohio have spoken out against Issue 1, including Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. Becky Doherty, a Portage County Common Pleas Judge, believes Issue 1 will affect her drug court.

“I will not have a drug court if Issue One passes because no felony drug possession cases will ever come to me,” Doherty said.

While F4 and F5 drug offenses cannot be sent to prison under Issue 1, they could still be given probation.

“When someone is convicted of one of these new misdemeanors, they can be put on probation … [which includes] drug treatment, including locked-down residential drug treatment where someone cannot leave the building,” JohnsonGrove said. “As long as it’s not a jail, they can be sent there on their first conviction for a drug-related offense.”

Many groups haven’t taken a position on Issue 1 while others sent statements. In an email, both National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio (NAMI Ohio) and the Ohio Association on County Behavioral Health Authorities said, “individuals with a substance use disorder are better served through treatment instead of incarceration.” However, NAMI said, “We neither oppose nor support this constitutional amendment, but feel that it does not address the problem as intended” while OACBHA said, “We oppose this constitutional amendment because it does not address the problem as intended.”

Both groups conclude with “We implore the Ohio General Assembly to immediately bring together a bi-partisan coalition of concerned Ohioans to take action to address these issues through a legislative solution.”


It is also more than just drug court judges who have an issue with Issue 1. Other critics include Gov. John Kasich, Republican governor candidate Mike DeWine, Democratic Ohio Attorney General candidate Steve Dettelbach and Ohio Speaker of the House Ryan Smith. Alison Breaux, a Summit County Mental Health Court Judge, said Issue 1 will not only affect drug courts, but her court as well.

Judge Alison Breaux
Photo Credit: Megan Ayscue

“It is sometimes difficult for individuals to comply with any sort of program if they don’t have the fear of having to go to prison,” she said. “It will absolutely affect our mental health court, it’ll affect anybody who has been charged with a felony of the fifth degree … That prison element is necessary.”

Doherty was also adamant on the necessity of having the possibility for offenders to go to prison.

“The court ordered treatment and the court ordered accountability is sometimes the only thing that gives enough incentive from someone to get treatment,” Doherty said. “I know that the general public probably doesn’t see the positive side of this opiate crisis, but we do because I’m the one who gets the letters from prison saying, ‘Thank you for sending me to prison after I violated, used and overdosed nine times. Prison for a year was really the only thing that got me cleaned up.’”

JohnsonGrove, however, said that addiction is a brain disease, a fact that “Chief Justice O’Connor and many of these other judges” agree with. Therefore, he doesn’t think prison is the best, or right, solution to the drug and addiction epidemic.

“There is no other disease, none, not in mental health, not physical health, for which we say we have to threaten punishment, including a jail cell in a horrifically overcrowded prison of jail, in order to get somebody to comply. None. And so let’s not pretend that this is normal, that this is the way we treat health problems,” he said.


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