Breaking News
More () »

What is Ohio Issue 1? Separating fact from fiction on divisive drug ballot initiative

You've heard about Issue 1, but what does it really mean? Here's an in-depth explanation you should read before heading to the polls.
Credit: Thinkstock

UPDATE | Issue 1 failed in Tuesday's midterm election.


COLUMBUS -- Hyperbolic claims about Ohio Issue 1 have already hit the airwaves and opinion pages statewide.

Ohio Issue 1 – also known as the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment – would change the state's constitution to reduce drug penalties and send fewer people to prison.

ELECTION DAY | Guide to everything you should know before voting in Ohio

The ballot initiative has inspired vigorous debate from both sides of the political spectrum. Some say it will destroy the state. Others claim it will cure Ohio's drug problem. Neither is true.

Here are some facts about Ohio Issue 1 so you can decide whether to support or oppose it this fall.

How would Ohio Issue 1 change drug penalties?

Individuals caught using or possessing drugs would face a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in county jail, rather than a fourth- or fifth-degree felony, which could lead to prison time.

Anyone convicted of those crimes would face probation or less for the first and second offenses within 24 months. On the third offense, the person could be sent to jail.

I don't know anything about drug laws. How much is a fourth- or fifth-degree felony amount of drugs?

In Ohio, the penalties for drug offenses depend on how much of a drug and what type of a drug is used. The measurement is called a "bulk amount" and it's different for each drug.

For example, current state law would punish someone with a fourth-degree felony if they were found with just under 1 kilogram of marijuana, just under 10 grams of cocaine or crack or just under 5 grams of heroin.

If Ohio Issue 1 passes, those offenses would become misdemeanors instead of felonies that could result in prison time.

Would Ohio Issue 1 reduce penalties for drug dealers?

Put simply: No.

Put more complicatedly: Ohio Issue 1 would not change penalties for people convicted of trafficking (the legal term for dealing) drugs.

And those caught using a first-, second- or third-degree amount of drugs could still face prison for drug possession. The argument is anyone with that many drugs must be sharing them or selling them.

However, prosecutors and GOP politicians argue that a fourth-degree felony amount of drugs is still a lot of drugs. Anyone found with that many drugs might be selling them as well. For example, nearly 1 kilogram of marijuana would be enough for 3,000 blunts if each were a third of a gram.

I'm hearing a lot about fentanyl. How would Ohio Issue 1 penalize users of that drug?

Fentanyl is a potent opioid used legally as a pain medication and for anesthesia, when combined with other drugs. But it's often used illegally to lace other drugs, making them even more potent.

The drug is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. More than 90 percent of drugs analyzed at the Hamilton County crime lab in the first four months of 2018 had fentanyl in them.

Gov. John Kasich recently signed a law to crack down on people who sell this dangerous drug. But the tougher penalties won't take effect until Oct. 31.

Here's where this becomes a potential problem: Ohio Issue 1 would reduce penalties for fourth- and fifth-degree offenses that were on the books as of Jan. 1, 2018. At that time, fentanyl wasn't labeled as one of the state's most dangerous drugs.

So anyone caught with less than 20 grams of fentanyl would face a misdemeanor instead of prison time. A lethal dose of fentanyl can be as small as 2 milligrams. That means 20 grams could kill as many as 10,000 people.

Ohio law also defined third-degree possession of fentanyl as "five times the maximum daily dose in the usual dose range specified in a standard pharmaceutical reference manual." That would be much less than 20 grams of fentanyl.

However, when a prosecutor tried to define fentanyl in that way – looking at the usual dose range for a similar opioid: morphine – the Ohio Supreme Court said that wasn't permitted.

Again, that confusion was cleared up with the law Kasich signed, but it takes effect too late for Issue 1.

Proponents of Issue 1 say people found with larger amounts of fentanyl are regularly charged with drug trafficking, attempted drug trafficking or child endangerment.

Lawmakers could change trafficking rules to make them easier to prosecute. The pharmaceutical reference manual might even get an update.

Would Issue 1 make Ohio's drug laws the most lenient in the nation?

No. Several states have eliminated felonies for possession of most drugs in recent years. California voters changed their laws in 2014. Connecticut legislators passed more lenient rules on drug possession in 2015.

How would Issue 1 compare with federal law?

Under federal law, someone caught with less than 40 grams of fentanyl would face between zero and 20 years in prison, depending on the judge's discretion. Anyone possessing between 40 and 400 grams of fentanyl would face at least five years in federal prison.

What's a drug court? Would Issue 1 destroy them?

Drug courts are options for individuals accused of drug crimes. Participants go before a judge, who might offer to eliminate lengthy prison sentences if drug users obtain treatment. There are 167 of these specialized drug courts statewide.

Without the threat of a prison sentence, participation in drug court programs would drop. That happened in California's San Diego County after voters in the Golden State reduced penalties for drug possession.

How much will participation drop in Ohio? That's more difficult to guess.

How many people are in Ohio's prisons? How would Issue 1 reduce that number?

As of Sept. 4, 49,345 people were incarcerated in Ohio's prisons. The average cost per inmate is $26,400 each year.

It's difficult to say exactly how many people would be spared a prison sentence because of Ohio Issue 1.

Policy Matters Ohio, a left-leaning think tank, estimated the prison population would be reduced by more than 10,000 people if Issue 1 passed. That number includes those who would face misdemeanors rather than felonies for drugs, those not sent to prison for non-criminal probation violations and those let out early for completing programming. Altogether, those reductions could save about $373,210 a day or $136 million a year.

That might be a little high. In 2017, 2,738 people were sent to prison for drug possession, according to prison statistics. It's not clear how many of those people were sentenced for fourth- or fifth-degree felony drug possession – the crimes that would become misdemeanors under Issue 1.

Ohio's prison system is doing its own investigation into these numbers, but it wasn't available in late September.

Bottom line: fewer people would be incarcerated in Ohio's prisons if Issue 1 passed.

How would Issue 1 change probation violations?

Probation violations – as long as they aren't new crimes – would no longer result in prison time. Some examples of those violations include skipping a meeting with a probation officer or not paying back money to victims.

I was convicted of a drug offense years ago. What would Issue 1 mean for me?

Those convicted of fourth- and fifth-degree drug possession charges could petition a court to reclassify those offenses as misdemeanors.

That could help people find jobs. In Ohio, 573 professions are off-limits to individuals convicted of felony drug possession. Misdemeanor drug convictions bar people from 250 careers.

For example: accountants will lose their licenses for felony convictions or any crime involving fraud. But dentists would lose their license for any misdemeanor or felony conviction in the course of practice.

How else would Issue 1 reduce the prison population?

Issue 1 would allow prisoners to reduce their sentences by up to 25 percent by completing educational, work or rehabilitative programs while incarcerated. Current rules allow up to 8 percent reduced.

There are some exceptions: those convicted of murder, rape or child molestation would not be eligible.

If Ohio saves money by reducing its prison population, where would that money go?

Under Issue 1, money saved would go toward drug treatment (70 percent), trauma care for crime survivors (15 percent) and local governments to adjust to new rules (15 percent.)

Who supports Issue 1?

Democratic governor hopeful Rich Cordray; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's advocacy arm; major Democratic donor George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center; state Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-North Avondale; Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young; Ohio Legislative Black Caucus; Ohio Education Association; Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice and Policy Center and more.

Who opposes Issue 1?

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who likes some of the ideas but says Issue 1 "misses the mark in ways that could lead to serious, unintended consequences," according to a spokesman; GOP governor hopeful Mike DeWine, who is the state's attorney general; Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters; Republican Dave Yost, who is running for Ohio attorney general; Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor; state Rep. Robert Sprague, the GOP candidate for treasurer; the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association; the Ohio Judicial Conference and more.

Before You Leave, Check This Out