A panel of four advocates for the Drug and Criminal Justice amendment on Ohio’s Nov. 6 ballot spoke in support of the measure last Thursday evening at Ohio University.
The four had been invited by the local chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) to speak to them at Porter Hall. The panel included Amanda Kiger of Ohio Organizing Collaborative, Elise Westenbarger of the Athens ISO, Joannah Tindongan of Faith in Public Life, and community member Andrea Reany. All of these groups have either formally endorsed or expressed support for Issue 1.
Each panelist was asked three prepared questions by a moderator from the ISO with a set amount of time to respond. After the prepared questions were answered, the floor was opened for an audience Q&A.
State Issue 1, or the Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative, is a constitutional amendment. If passed on Nov. 6, the measure will reduce fourth- and fifth-degree drug possession and use felonies to misdemeanors, with penalties not exceeding probation for first or second offenses. It would allow certain inmates to reduce their prison sentences by completing rehabilitation training while incarcerated. Issue 1 also would require that savings resulting in a reduction in inmates in state prisons be spent on drug treatment, crimes victims and rehab programs. It would not change the felony charge for people arrested for first-, second- and third-degree drug crimes, including trafficking in controlled drugs.
States including California, Oklahoma and Connecticut have passed legislation that like Issue 1 reduces criminal charges and penalties for possession of illegal drugs and in some of the states, other non-violent crimes as well. All of the laws differ in important respects, and none of the other ones are constitutional amendments, as is the case with Issue 1. Most were sold more as general criminal justice/prison reforms rather than ways to reduce drug addiction.
In some cases, including in Oklahoma, the law hasn’t been in effect long enough to gauge its success.
In the cited states, Tindongan insisted during the Thursday event, crime has decreased, a more positive attitude toward those suffering from addiction has been ushered in, and the states have been able to shift their focus toward more serious crimes.
“If what we were doing was working right now, we’d see effects, and it’s not,” she said. “What we have seen effects for are the other three states that have already passed legislation successfully and I want to see that for Ohio… I want to look at people with hope and for the next steps in their lives, rather than what has already happened in the past.”
Eleven other states have begun the process of decriminalizing drug usage, according to Kiger. “I like to say we’re taking flea bites out, but fleas do draw blood and enough fleas draw a lot of blood… This is a great start,” she said.
Sending a drug offender to prison for a short period of time is almost like giving them a “life sentence,” noted Reany. This is because they may have a hard time reintegrating themselves back into society because of the negative social and legal ramifications that accompany having a felony record. She added that she views Issue 1 as an opportunity to organize and unite marginalized groups.
“This is a chance to help (bring) understanding between white folks in Appalachia and, you know, black people who have been criminalized in the war on drugs for a very long time… Everyone is a victim of the system at one point or another,” Reany said.
Westernbarger noted that there’s nothing inherently criminal about drug use.
“The truth is that behaviors become crimes when they threaten social order,” she said. “Drug use is no different. Criminalizing drug use is a means of social control of the working class who, more often than not, use drugs in the first place as a way to escape the emotional and physical effects of life under capitalism.”
After the event, Ellie Hamrick, an Athens ISO member, said she felt it was successful because people attended whom she had never seen before. The Athens ISO chose not to include any Issue 1 opponents on the panel because those against the measure, Hamrick claimed, already dominate the media.
“The people who are opposed to Issue 1 tend to be part of the criminal-justice establishment such as judges, prosecuting attorneys and cops. Their voices have been heard enough,” Hamrick said.
Daniel Kington, an audience member and a member of the Athens ISO, said an initiative like Ohio Issue 1 would never be passed in Congress by either Democrats or Republicans.
“That makes me very excited to go out and vote on election day… It’s extremely rare in society that we actually get to go out and vote on something that matters and that affects people’s lives in a concrete way,” he said.
Opponents of Ohio Issue 1, foremost in law enforcement, prosecutors and the judiciary, maintain that the threat of jail is the foremost incentive for getting many drug addicts into treatment. Removing that threat will mean many addicts will not choose treatment, they say.
Some alternatives to Issue 1 – including one proposed Oct. 5 by Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn – have been proposed. They purport to correct flaws in Issue 1 while still accomplishing its main goal, reducing the number of Ohioans who go to prison for drug possession, and instead funneling those individuals into treatment programs.
A similar proposal advanced by Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein and Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien already has been submitted to the Ohio Senate president for consideration in the Legislature should Issue 1 fail at the polls.
Some opponents of Issue 1 also dispute supporters’ oft-repeated contention that the state has done nothing to address the issues state Issue 1 purports to take on. A fact sheet being circulated by the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association – a group bitterly opposed to Issue 1 – lists five different pieces of legislation enacted specifically to combat the opiate crisis. It also cites a Sept. 27 release by the Ohio Department of Health that cites several initiatives being taken at the state and local levels to address the crisis.
Meanwhile, a local forum or debate on Issue 1, with both sides represented, was being contemplated as of Saturday, but it’s still uncertain if it will take place.
– Athens NEWS Editor Terry Smith contributed to this report.