In less than three weeks, via early voting, Ohioans will have their say on Issue 1. Issue 1 is a much-needed and long overdue push-back against the thoroughly failed, decades long War on Drugs. In other words, it is an indictment against our state legislators and elected officials, who still subscribe, in bipartisan fashion, to the notion that locking up everyone in sight solves drug problems.
I know this because I am a lobbyist with a front row seat watching those at the Statehouse repeatedly cling to policies that do not work and never have and never will. What is especially frustrating are the number of senators, representatives and government officials who have become increasingly fond of acknowledging the War on Drugs does not work — then doing nothing to change course.
In fact, they continue to actively make things worse. Take the recently passed Senate Bill 1. S.B. 1 is a response to the prevalence of fentanyl and its offshoots, a truly serious problem. When it was introduced, and as it worked its way through the legislature, it was continually and falsely sold as going after dealers but not addicts or users, because those people need help.
Yet, the bill dramatically increases punishment for anyone caught with fentanyl, even the smallest amounts, as we warned. Still, S.B. 1 sailed through the legislature with almost no opposition from either party. This is but one example of many to illustrate how Ohio’s legislature has fumbled drug policy since I started at the ACLU of Ohio in 1995.
The effects of continually doing what does not work are well-documented. Ohio’s prisons have been dangerously overcrowded for decades, fueled by the War on Drugs. We throw more and more people into prison, then watch as they return to society with severely reduced employment, housing and education prospects because they now have felony records.
These same people receive little in the way of drug treatment or positive programming while locked up, so it is no surprise when their struggles continue once out. And there is no doubt all these negative effects hit communities of color far more than white Ohioans at every single step along the way.
Those who are largely responsible for the mess we are in have been blanketing Ohio to slam Issue 1 while offering no positive alternatives of their own, just more of the same status quo. They know Ohioans supporting Issue 1 ultimately means a rejection of the harmful system they set up and perpetuate.
A now familiar argument is Issue 1 will take away the ability of judges to divert people to drug courts and get needed help. What they seem incapable of realizing is we do not need arrests, convictions and incarceration to get people drug treatment.
They ignore the huge numbers of people ineligible for drug courts because of counterproductive restrictions. They are silent on the lack of treatment options across Ohio because the legislature refuses to provide adequate funding.
What’s conveniently left out of their Issue 1 criticism? The fact that the ballot initiative requires money saved from fewer people incarcerated to be used for drug treatment and rehabilitation.
Opponents want more of the same, and all they have are scare tactics. They cannot, or refuse to explain, what they would change. Many of them see no problem with what Ohio currently does.
I am confident Ohioans know the system is broken and are hungry for change. They see this in their own lives and those of their family and friends. While the legislature and our state remain paralyzed by inaction and more people fall victim to the old way of doing things, Issue 1 is the opportunity for Ohioans to change their lives, their communities and their state.
Daniels is the chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio.