Lawrence drug court a step in the right direction

September 29, 2018

The new drug court in Lawrence County, Ohio, celebrated a milestone last week when it was certified by the Ohio Supreme Court. “I couldn’t be happier,” Common Pleas Judge Andy Ballard said.

“We’re trying to rebuild families and thereby rebuild the community,” Ballard said. “Mental health is a big component of this. Nine of the 10 participants have untreated or undiagnosed mental health disorders.”

The drug court started April 19. The court includes community members and local treatment providers. It meets on the first and third Thursday of the month. There currently are 10 people seeking guidance from the drug court and one more application is pending, Ballard said.

“The goal here is accountability,” Ballard said. “Treatment is a big part of the program. They also have to have a GED and get a job to graduate from the drug court,” he said.

Cabell County has had a drug court since 2009. It was the sixth to open in West Virginia. It is an adult drug court that handles post-plea and probation violation cases. It’s a collaborative effort of legal, mental health, education and social service professionals who provide comprehensive treatment and rehabilitative services for non-violent drug and alcohol abusing offenders.

West Virginia drug courts are not for felony offenders. If a weapon is used, if a person uses violence against another person or if the person has a prior felony conviction, he or she is not eligible for drug court.

Drug courts exist to guide people who need treatment, not incarceration. An initiative on the Ohio ballot in November has people in the Buckeye State arguing over how to deal with addiction. Specifically, it’s whether mere possession of dangerous drugs such as heroin and fentanyl should be a felony or a misdemeanor.

Issue 1, also known as the Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative, was placed on the Ohio ballot through the initiative process, which is not permitted in West Virginia. Supporters of the initiative obtained the signatures of 351,095 registered voters in more than 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties so that the proposed amendment to the state constitution could be placed on the ballot for voter approval.

The initiative would, among other things, make offenses related to drug possession and use misdemeanors rather than felonies, and it would require the state to spend more on treatment and rehabilitation programs and less on incarceration. Selling illegal drugs would remain a felony, but possessing them would not.

Issue 1 has caused a division in Ohio. Many law enforcement officials, particularly in southern Ohio counties dealing with the opioid epidemic, oppose it. In Lawrence County, Sheriff Jeff Lawless, Prosecuting Attorney Brigham Anderson, Common Pleas Judges Charles “Chuck” Cooper and Ballard and Municipal Court Judges Don Capper and Kevin Waldo have all come out against it. They say Issue 1 would make possession of enough fentanyl to kill 10,000 people a misdemeanor.

Ohio is electing a governor this year to replace John Kasich, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits. Republican candidate Mike DeWine opposes Issue 1, while Democratic candidate Rich Cordray favors it.

Ohioans will have to decide whether reducing the penalties for possessing heroin, fentanyl and other addictive drugs is a good idea. Meanwhile, local officials will do what they can to help people caught up in addiction and who recognize they need help. The new drug court in Lawrence County should be a significant step in that direction.

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