Issue 1 has been fostering much discussion in the lead-up to the midterm elections, and no doubt if you are even remotely plugged in to Ohio elections, you have heard about it from one or both sides.
First and foremost, there is no doubt in my mind that Issue 1 and those supporting it are extremely well-intentioned.
My voice is one that I have learned a lot of people do not expect: to be against Issue 1. As a recovering heroin addict, clean for four and a half years now, I would urge you to vote no, and I feel strongly enough about this to let go of my objectivity as an editor to write an opinion piece to voice this feeling.
Ultimately, there are two reasons why you should vote no on Issue 1: A constitutional amendment is too drastic and if passed, valuable opportunities for addicts to get a catalyst for turning their life around will be taken away.
As I am not a legal scholar, I will get the constitutional portion out of the way quickly. Simply put, constitutional amendments are a drastic measure and extremely difficult to tweak in the future. If this proposal is not nearly perfect but still passes, then we will be nearly powerless to make fixes.
A lot of the ideas being proposed are good, but being taken a little too far, and pushing for a constitutional amendment is the perfect microcosm of that. Let’s get this fight against addiction to the legislative chamber.
With that out of the way, I would like to touch more on what I am “qualified” to speak about: what it is like to battle addiction and the opportunities one needs to get out of its depths.
I fought with a drug addiction for four years, mainly heroin, but like any true addict, I used everything that came my way, and being four and a half years removed, I am concerned that Issue 1 will take away a crucial catalyst for addicts to get clean: consequences.
Moving all Felony 4 and Felony 5 drug convictions to misdemeanors while guaranteeing no worse than probation for the first two offenses within two years is giving addicts and abusers a license to keep using.
I’ll keep it simple — giving an addict the choice to appear in drug court or just take probation is basically a free pass. Probation, for an addict, is a not a consequence; it’s getting out of a bad situation with an opportunity to keep using.
Scott Vanderkarr, who served on the bench for a drug court from 2009 to 2016 and heroin court from 2010 to 2016, said taking away consequences from judges could lead to dangerous outcomes when people choose the easier route of probation instead of standing before a judge.
“Every person that comes in with a substance use disorder is going to say, ‘I’ll take the easy route,’” Vanderkarr said. “What I’m concerned about is that during that time people are going to die.”
More than any other institution, Issue 1 will undermine drug courts, the type of solution we need. Drug courts provide accountability with compassion, the type of community answer we need for this crisis.
Drug courts are courts designed for those with substance abuse disorders. Those convicted of drug offenses — that are non-violent, non-sexually oriented charges as well as non-gun — can choose to go through drug court, where they are assigned accountability by going through treatment and appearing in court every week for two years.
“The catalyst to give someone treatment, but treatment with accountability,” Vanderkarr said. “You’re promised that if at the end of two years you completed the program, your original plea is vacated and the charge is dismissed.”
Treatment with accountability, as someone who got clean, is paramount. You need some structure in your life that will bring the hammer down and knock you out of your own nonsense when you aren’t putting in the work to get clean.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to graduates and they’ll go, ‘Well it was the second time you threw me in jail,’” Vanderkarr said. “I wasn’t throwing them in jail forever. Maybe three days, maybe a week, at the most two weeks. Just enough to get their attention when they were dirty or they weren’t going to their counseling like they were supposed to.”
A drug court judge can see the same people every week and learn their lives and help them with compassion. Whether it’s with punishment or encouragement, those are the types of community responses we need.
“I might come down off the bench when you’re 30 days clean and give you a hug,” Vanderkarr said. “It’s not just consequences out of drug court, it’s positive reinforcement for the positive things you do.”
Our crisis with addiction needs the help of communities. It needs compassion and treatment options, but they need to come with accountability. I applaud the efforts of those working on Issue 1 to fight this crisis, but as constituted, I urge you to vote no.