Those Ohioans who have seen the television ads for Issue 1 know the power of the message. One features a drug treatment provider stressing how the state has been falling short so far, evident in the rising number of overdose deaths from opioid use and the many people in prison on drug possession charges.
The latest ad focuses on a father mourning the death of his son, believing increased access to treatment would have saved his life.
Do something to break the pattern of failure is the compelling message of Issue 1. That surely resonates in a state among the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. More, key provisions would be worth trying if they appeared on the ballot as an initiated statute, lawmakers in position to respond quickly to unintended consequences or other shortcomings.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. The measure is a proposed amendment to the state constitution. Thus, we recommend a no vote on state Issue 1.
What is different about a constitutional amendment? It is difficult to change, repair or improve, as this editorial page has argued in assessing past proposals. Such steps require amending the amendment, mounting a statewide campaign to win voter approval. If Issue 1 would necessitate some implementing legislation, that won’t be enough to address deeper flaws that may surface.
Ohioans have learned during the past half-dozen years or so that a drug crisis can alter its shape, even with relative suddenness. Here, the prime focus once went to physician-driven pill mills. Then, heroin came to the front, followed by the exceedingly stronger fentanyl and even more potent carfentanil.
This narrative argues for preserving flexibility for lawmakers and others to respond.
Issue 1 seeks both to expand the availability of drug treatment and reduce the prison population, the reduction, in effect, paying for the expansion. To get there, felony drug possession charges would be reduced to misdemeanors.
In addition, many currently in prison could earn early release by participating in educational or other rehabilitative programs.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court and other critics warn that someone could possess as much as 19 grams of fentanyl, enough to kill thousands, and still face misdemeanor charges. That would be possible. Yet the measure keeps in place the laws and penalties covering drug trafficking.
What troubles about Issue 1 is the element of uncertainty. For instance, drug courts have proved an effective tool. Without the current stick of potential prison time, would they be as helpful? What would be the fallout for judicial discretion? Recovery often is a struggle, many addicts relapsing multiple times.
These and other matters belong in the thick of a legislative process, lawmakers hearing from experts and stakeholders, weighing pros and cons, getting feedback as they proceed. Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a retired Ohio Supreme Court justice, recently cited legislative inaction as giving momentum to Issue 1. Clearly, lawmakers must do more. That doesn’t mean a constitutional amendment is the appropriate course to take.
Perhaps that will be the lasting value of Issue 1, raising the profile enough to spur lawmakers into action. For now, voters should reject the measure. There are better ways to expand drug treatment and reduce the prison population.