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No on Issue 1 reclassifying Ohio drug crimes: endorsement editorial

September 23, 2018

No on Issue 1 reclassifying Ohio drug crimes: endorsement editorial

Amending the Ohio Constitution to recast this state’s drug laws is like using a chainsaw for surgery: It’s anything but precise. And once it’s embedded in the state’s constitution, a do-over is all but impossible.

That, however, is what Issue 1, on Ohio’s November ballot, would do. True, there are sound arguments for reshaping Ohio’s drug-crime laws to emphasize treatment and recovery and de-emphasize imprisonment – if Ohio would indeed provide substantial recovery services. Finding those resources should be a priority for elected officeholders, and the taxpayers, and an issue on the campaign trail this fall.

But it’s the legislature that should address such an important but politically volatile and complicated matter as making sure state sentencing law and Ohio’s general approach to drug crimes appropriately emphasize treatment over incarceration. Putting this issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment subject to emotional voting, not careful review, is dangerous and wrong -- which is why virtually all state judicial and law enforcement groups oppose Issue 1.

Supporters of Issue 1, in their official arguments in favor of it, say that using the Ohio Constitution to require “misdemeanors instead of felonies for low-level drug possession” along with treatment, community service or local jailing rather than state prison time would improve public safety, save taxpayers “tens of millions of dollars ... and direct the saving to addiction treatment and victims of crime.”

As an ideal, that’s appealing. But that’s not what the small print would do. As just one example: Including fentanyl in the drugs that would be subject to misdemeanor charging ignores how even tiny amounts of this lethal opioid that is so frequently purveyed by drug dealers can kill.

Voters with long memories will recall arguments in support of closing the state’s network of mental hospitals: The savings supposedly would provide former inpatients with plentiful services better delivered in “the community.”

Deinstitutionalization instead became a factor in homelessness. Services never matched promises.

Issue 1 supporters say, with some justice, that the General Assembly’s increasing tendency to duck tough issues, and to dither over those issues it does tackle, is also an argument for Issue 1. But adding an amendment of almost 2,000 words to the Ohio Constitution, an amendment few Ohioans will find the time to read or have the knowledge to interpret, is a recipe for unforeseen consequences and endless litigation.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is among those speaking out against Issue 1. O’Connor, once Summit County’s prosecuting attorney, warned last month that Issue 1 “may be well-intentioned in design, but its passage would gravely endanger Ohioans. It would be devastating in effect,” including by reducing to misdemeanors a range of drug offenses that are felonies now.

“Who wouldn’t want to set up their drug distribution business in Ohio knowing that possessing 19 grams of fentanyl or lethal amounts of other drugs would result only in a first-class misdemeanor with mandatory probation?” O’Connor said in her Aug. 30 statement.

And by taking jail time “off the table,” Issue 1 would deny Ohio courts needed leverage in persuading drug offenders to get treatment, she said, imperiling the effectiveness of the state’s widely lauded drug courts to continue to do just what Issue 1 seeks to do, which is to emphasize treatment over incarceration.

O’Connor isn’t the only judge arguing against Issue 1. Also speaking out against the proposed constitutional amendment are associations of Ohio’s judges -- judges who sometimes seem reticent to give anyone the time of day because it might suggest they favor one time zone over another.

Cleveland.com reported in August that a philanthropy linked to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, is among those backing Issue 1. The Chan Zuckerberg Advocacy, of Palo Alto, California, has donated $1 million to the Issue 1 campaign, as has the Washington-based Open Society Policy Center, part of “a family of offices and foundations created by philanthropist George Soros.”

As legally required, Issue 1′s opening words are, “Be it resolved by the people of the state of Ohio ...”

If Ohio required truth-in-packaging for ballot issues, Issue 1 might accurately open this way: “Be it enacted by a few rich people in California, the District of Columbia, and other places outside Ohio, who think they know better how to run Ohio than Ohioans do ...”

Ohioans should vote No on Issue 1.

Early voting for the Nov. 6 election begins Oct. 10. 

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization. 

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