Passage of state Issue 1 in the Nov. 6 election would create a disaster for Ohio, five elected Delaware County officials said in a Oct. 4 press conference.
The issue -- a proposed constitutional amendment to "reduce penalties for crimes of obtaining, possessing and using illegal drugs" -- came under fire from county Prosecutor Carol O'Brien, Common Pleas Judge Everett Krueger, Municipal Judge David Sunderman, Sheriff Russell Martin and county Commissioner Barb Lewis.
The issue would reclassify drug possession from a felony charge to a misdemeanor, among other provisions.
The elected officials emphasized that Issue 1 would cause more drug-related deaths and decrease the number of people seeking treatment for drug use and addiction.
O'Brien, Sunderman and Martin said most drug users or addicts will not seek treatment on their own, and only the threat of incarceration will force most of them to seek help. Issue 1 would eliminate that leverage, they said.
J. Bennett Guess, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, said such statements are misleading. He said Section D of the issue's full text reads, "If an individual has more than two convictions within a 24-month period, then sanctions may include jail time or probation in lieu of jail time."
Dennis Willard, spokesman for the Yes on Issue 1 campaign, called the Delaware County officials' statements "scare tactics" and said the issue "would not change one comma" in Ohio's drug-trafficking laws.
Krueger said Issue 1 would emasculate his court's effective drug-recovery docket, which has existed about seven years.
"Trust me when I say this amendment will be disastrous," he said. "Every time I read it, I come up with more concerns."
He said it would allow offenders to ignore court orders, and the state department of corrections would end up telling judges what they can do with offenders.
The issue, Krueger said, would create "a mockery of the justice system in Ohio."
Sunderman said Issue 1 would "trivialize serious drug offenses." Users of dangerous drugs such as fentanyl "will quickly see there are no consequences," he said, and drug use will increase.
Ohio judges favor treatment over jail or prison, he said, and drug addicts frequently are not motivated to seek treatment.
He told of talking to one defendant whose friend was killed in an overdose. When he asked the defendant if she was ready for treatment, he said, he "didn't really get much of a response."
Those who successfully complete treatment, he said, "understand the importance" of the existing judicial approach. He cited a letter to a newspaper from a man who said he would have stayed addicted if his drug charge had been a misdemeanor.
O'Brien criticized one provision of Issue 1 that would grant incarcerated felons up to a 25 percent reduction in sentence length if they complete a rehabilitation program. Those convicted of murder, rape or child molestation would not be eligible.
O'Brien said the provision would cut prison time for dangerous criminals convicted of terrorism, human trafficking, kidnapping and aggravated burglary.
She said California's Proposition 47, which changed a number of different offenses to misdemeanors, has cost the state hundreds of million of dollars annually. She cited a YouTube video titled "Junkies Take Over Corridors Of San Francisco Civic Center BART Station" as another example of what has occurred.
Martin said one woman told him she would have died if not for the time she spent in jail.
The sheriff also said he has "routinely watched young men" in the county jail "in the throes of recovery and pain of being free of addiction, and my concern each and every time I see that is wondering where they would be if they were not incarcerated at that moment."
Guess said such young men should be in treatment, not writhing in the pain of withdrawal, which underscores one of many flaws Issue 1 seeks to address.
The public might think drug treatment is available in every jail, but it isn't, Guess said. Half of Ohio's counties have no local residential drug-treatment program, he said, and many jails have no treatment of any type.
Since the 1980s, he said, Ohio has waged "a harshly punitive war against drugs," and what prosecutors and judges are doing "clearly is not working."
Willard said 5 percent of Ohio's prison population is incarcerated for drug possession, and the annual cost of keeping them in prison has been estimated at $100 million to $136 million. That money could be used to increase treatment's availability, he said.
He said courts and prosecutors say the status quo is working, but it isn't. Instead, Willard said, the real problem "is a disease. ... Let's create good programming."
Both Guess and Willard said a liability of the current system is that those convicted of possession suffer from the lifetime stigma of a felony conviction. The public expects ex-felons to be fully assimilated into society after prison, they said, but a felony conviction limits job and educational opportunities.
Willard defended the plan to reduce most sentence lengths by 25 percent for qualifying prison inmates. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction operates prisons, and Willard asked, "Are we not going to try to rehabilitate?"
Each year, he said, 20,000 people both enter and exit the prison system, and "we're not doing enough to prepare (those leaving) to be successful."
O'Brien said only about $19,000 of the total available to promote Issue 1 was raised in Ohio, and people in California and Washington, D.C., want to "tell us in Ohio what to do."
Willard said a more-accurate measure of statewide support is the fact 730,000 Ohioans signed petitions to put Issue 1 on ballot.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, has donated to the Issue 1 campaign. In a statement, the foundation cited Issue 1's Ohio support from "a coalition of community, law enforcement, faith and business leaders, and community groups."
Lewis told the press conference both the county commissioners and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio oppose Issue 1, which she said would create "some of the most lenient drug-crime laws in the nation."
During the Oct. 8 meeting of Delaware City Council, City Manager Tom Homan raised the question if the city should take a position on Issue 1. If it is approved, he said, the change from felony to misdemeanor charges for drug possession will mean increased costs of operating and staffing Delaware Municipal Court.
To read the text of Issue 1, visit tinyurl.com/delawareissue1.