A provided photo of Elise Westenbarger and her daughter Penelope.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series examining state Issue 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot, through the eyes of four area residents who have struggled, and worked to recover from, drug and alcohol addiction. The first part tells the stories of two of them; the second part, in Thursday’s issue, will wrap up with the final two. 

Issue 1 on the Ohio ballot this year has kick-started a difficult conversation in Ohio about addiction, recovery and the criminal-justice system, one that has become deeply personal for hundreds of thousands of Ohioans.

It should come as no surprise that most state residents – and many Athens residents – know somebody who has struggled with addiction, or have themselves struggled with it. Ohio leads the country in overdoses due to opioid drugs (including heroin, prescription opioids and fentanyl).

First a little background on Issue 1. It’s a criminal-justice reform measure on the ballot this November that proposes amending Ohio’s constitution to drastically reduce penalties for drug possession, and proposes redirecting savings from reduced incarcerations toward expanded drug addiction recovery treatment.

The amendment, if adopted, would (according to its own ballot language):

• Require sentence reductions of incarcerated individuals, except individuals incarcerated for murder, rape, or child molestation, by up to 25 percent if the individual participates in rehabilitative, work or educational programming.

• Mandate that criminal offenses of obtaining, possessing or using any drug such as fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, and other controlled substances cannot be classified as a felony, but only a misdemeanor.

• 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.

The Plains resident Elise Westenbarger told The NEWS she struggled with addiction off and on for five years when she was younger, starting with using Oxycontin recreationally when she was 17 and heroin when she was 19 (at the time, she was a Washington D.C. resident). She said her experiences with addiction and the criminal-justice system has informed her opinion on Issue 1, which she supports.

“Addiction is a health-care issue, and should be treated as such,” she said. “Addiction can be physical, mental or both, and the criminal-justice system is simply not equipped to deliver the medical care that addicts need, as evidenced by the continuing escalation and spiraling of the opioid problem in this country, as well as the abysmal failure of the now decades-long ‘war on drugs.’ My experience with the criminal-justice system did not contribute in any way to my recovery from addiction.

“In fact, the stress, guilt and shame that come from being treated like a criminal for a health condition I had little control over made me lean even further into my addiction, as at the time drugs were the only coping method I knew,” she said.

Westenbarger, 29, said she was admitted to three two- or three-month-long residential rehabilitation programs during her struggles with addiction, and said she didn’t “get clean” for good following her last inpatient stay. She said she didn’t kick the addiction until “the conditions in my life were conducive to me making the final step out of my addiction.” She said she was arrested several times during that time period.

“The first time I was arrested was because I had overdosed,” she recalled. “Someone called 911, and I was taken to the hospital and treated. Afterwards, I was told by the police that responded to the call that I was going to be charged with possession of heroin and possession of paraphernalia. I went to jail for a couple of nights and was placed on probation. As an active addict, I went back to using when I got out, and ended up missing probation meetings or failing urine tests and being charged on the same case for violation of probation. From then on, it was basically an ongoing cycle of getting arrested and charged with possession, getting put on probation, violating that probation, and so on, with the threat of finally receiving a jail sentence looming ever nearer.”

Westenbarger said that by reclassifying user-level possession as a misdemeanor in Ohio, Issue 1 would liberate “countless former addicts from some of the actual barriers imposed on them by being forced to disclose, and potentially be disqualified for, felony convictions.”

“I recently had to disclose my criminal background for a new job, and was subsequently barred from entering certain buildings of partnering organizations that are usually frequented by the holder of my position, despite the fact that my charges are misdemeanors (I’m not from Ohio) and are now the better part of a decade old,” she explained.

She said a “much bigger decriminalization movement” is necessary to address the opioid epidemic.

“Building that movement hinges on shifting the public perception of drug addicts and addiction toward a more compassionate and health-based understanding,” she said. “Issue 1 would contribute to shifting that public perception in Ohio

ON THE OTHER SIDE, fellow Plains resident Robert Hughes, 32, says he opposes Issue 1. Hughes said he’s been sober for about 11 months now, after struggling with addiction for the past six years to heroin and crack cocaine.

“What happened is, I got in trouble, and that gave me the nudge I needed to get where I am today,” he said.

Hughes is a “graduate” of Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn’s Vivitrol treatment program, although he said he never took a Vivitrol shot; he instead relied on the counseling portion of that program, along with going to an inpatient treatment center in Portsmouth for several months. Vivitrol, combined with counseling and other services, is used to treat individuals who are addicted to opiates, by blocking receptors in the brain so users don’t feel cravings and won’t get a high even if they take opioids. It’s administered once a month as a shot.

Hughes said he doesn’t think he would ever have gotten “clean” if he had not had “that nudge” from having prison time “hanging over his head.”

“I got three possession charges a couple years ago on three different occasions in the midst of my addiction; I got indicted,” he explained. “So I went from no felonies to now I have three felonies with three years over my head. Which is definitely a good deterrent. That definitely is good motivation; that’s helped me along this way. That’s why I do believe that if that issue (1) gets passed, it’s going to hurt more people than help… For a lot of people that (potential jail or prison time) just opens their eyes.”

Hughes said that while he’s largely opposed to Issue 1 because of its reclassification of felony charges to misdemeanor charges, he still thinks there needs to be more recovery treatment options for people dealing with addiction.

“It’s hard to find treatment, and it’s hard to find treatment that will take you if you don’t have a medical card,” he said. “Not all of us have medical cards.”

Hughes said people have a hard time seeing any self-worth when they’re “trapped in the mix of the addiction,” so it can be difficult for those people to stop using drugs.

“For me, it costs too much for me to get high anymore,” Hughes said. “It’d cost me my life; it’s going to cost me my freedom; it’s going to cost me being a good dad to my children. I’m not willing to pay that price no more.”

Hughes added that while he’s doing OK right now as a self-contractor, he’s concerned about what will happen if he needs to look for jobs in the future with the felony conviction on his record.

Athens County’s sheriff, prosecutor and a variety of local judges all have come out against state Issue 1.

A wide variety of Ohio groups connected to law enforcement, criminal justice and victims rights have announced their opposition to Issue 1 as well, the most prominent being Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor (who is a Republican). O’Connor has warned that passing Issue 1 will have “catastrophic consequences for our state.”

Other prominent organizations – including the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Education Association – have announced their support for Issue 1, as has Richard Cordray, Democratic candidate for Ohio governor. (His opponent, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine, opposes Issue 1).

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