Police on patrol Thursday afternoon in South Akron pulled over a white SUV because the driver hadn’t turned on his headlights during a rainstorm, a report said.

Officers quickly discovered the 31-year-old Barberton man behind the wheel was driving with a suspended license and reported finding two baggies of white powder that tested positive for fentanyl — the powerful opioid often sold on the streets as heroin even though it can easily be 50 times stronger.

Combined, the powder in both bags weighed about 6 grams, police said, a tiny amount hardly heavier than a U.S. quarter coin. Yet federal officials have warned 6 grams of fentanyl could kill up to 3,000 people.

Police last week charged the Barberton man with a felony, writing in a report that the “bulk amount of fentanyl is not perceived to be for personal use.” If convicted, he could face prison time.

But on Tuesday, Ohio voters could change the state Constitution, making that amount of fentanyl — and up to more than three times as much, 19 grams — a misdemeanor punishable by probation.

Supporters of Issue 1 — called the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment — argue Ohio’s war on drugs has failed. They say reducing drug penalties would send fewer people to prison, freeing up tax dollars for rehabilitation programs.

Opponents argue the measure is a stay-out-of-jail free card for drug dealers smart enough to keep their fentanyl stash smaller than 19 grams.

Possession of any more than 20 grams would remain a felony.

They also say parts of Issue 1 tie the hands of the state legal system, which has come to embrace a carrot-and-stick approach with drug users, sometimes offering rehabilitation as an option to incarceration.

And they point out that, because Issue 1 would change the state Constitution, lawmakers would have no authority to tweak or change any part of it no matter what consequences arise.

Undecided voters

As the Issue 1 debate has heated up in recent weeks, research from the Baldwin Wallace University Community Research Institute has found opposition to the ballot measure growing.

In early October, 30.5 percent of those polled opposed the measure, and that climbed to 39.8 percent toward month’s end, Tom Sutton, a political science professor who leads the research institute, said in a statement last week.

He pointed out, however, that 17 percent of Ohio voters remain undecided on Issue 1, enough to swing the measure either way.

That may be because voters who have seen their state ravaged by the opioid crisis are afraid to make a mistake.

The most recent numbers from Summit County Public Health show that in the most recent six days tracked — from Oct. 26 through Oct. 31— 20 people sought emergency room help after overdosing.

The numbers don’t include those revived by friends or family with naloxone, nor do they say which drugs may have been involved in the overdoses.

Officials weigh in

Supporters of Issue 1 include Democratic gubernatorial nominee Richard Cordray, the Ohio Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and more than a dozen black elected leaders in Summit County.

The measure is also supported by non-Ohioans, including the advocacy arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Democratic donor George Soros’ policy center and Piper Kerman, who wrote “Orange Is the New Black” after spending 13 months in prison for a nonviolent drug conviction.

Opponents include Republican gubernatorial hopeful Mike DeWine, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh and numerous local judges.

Stephen JohnsonGrove, deputy director of policy at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center — which backs Issue 1 — told Politico that Issue 1 is tied closely to the state’s race for governor.

“If DeWine wins, we’re not going to win. If Cordray wins, we have a shot,” he said in the Politico article published online in late October. “And even if we don’t, but we get really close, I think we’ll have sent a really solid warning shot that there’s a big appetite in the state for this.”

New opioid

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved a powerful new opioid prescription painkiller tablet called Dsuvia that some opponents say is 10 times more times powerful than fentanyl.

It was developed as an alternative to IV painkillers used in hospitals, including for injured soldiers on a battlefield. The pill from AcelRx Pharmaceuticals contains the same decades-old painkiller often given in IV form or injection to surgical patients and women in labor.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said there will be “very tight restrictions” placed on its distribution and it is intended only for supervised settings like hospitals.

 

 

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.