ROCKSPRINGS — Their message was clear — “Vote no on Issue 1.”
Officials from Meigs, Gallia, Jackson, Vinton and Washington Counties gathered at the Robert E. Byer Emergency Operations Center on Friday morning, addressing State Issue 1 which is to be considered by voters in the upcoming election.
Meigs County Prosecutor James K. Stanley told members of the media that the group was standing united to pass along their message of opposition for Issue 1.
“All across the state of Ohio law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys are coming together to stand united in opposition to State Issue 1…. We stand here united before you to pass our message along that we are in opposition to State Issue 1 and also to encourage voters to vote no in November,” said Stanley.
Known as the “The Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment”, Issue 1 would have a major impact on the judicial system and law enforcement, according to the message at the press conference.
“As with everybody standing with me here today, the drug epidemic has taken a toll on my community, my county. To say that it has devastated our communities is a serious understatement,” said Vinton County Prosecutor Trecia Kimes-Brown.
Stanley explained, that should Issue 1 pass, possession of as much as 19 grams of fentanyl would be a misdemeanor offense, not punishable by more than probation, unless it was the offenders third offense in a 24-month period.
Putting that into proportion, that amount of fentanyl would be enough to kill approximately 10,000 people, said Stanley.
With very little consequence for possession of large amounts of drugs, Stanley stated that the consequences would be “devastating” and the state would become a “hot spot” for drug traffickers.
“The consequences are minimal… there would be great incentive to come in and make a profit,” said Stanley.
If the aim of the amendment is to increase drug treatment, this is not the way to do it, explained Stanley.
Currently, a judge may order an offender to complete a drug treatment program as part of his or her sentence. The sentence often will state that should the offender fail to complete the program then they would be sentenced to a specific amount of time in prison. Should the amendment pass, there would be no ability to sentence a person to prison time for failure to complete a drug program.
“People who need and deserve a second chance will not get it under this amendment,” cautioned Stanley.
While Stanley explained the legal ramifications of the amendment, Kimes-Brown appealed to voters on a different level.
“I would like to appeal to you today as not only a prosecutor, but as a mother, as a citizen, as a tax payer, as a voter, to think practically what this situation is going to present to all of these folks behind me who go to work everyday and risk their lives to make us safer,” said Kimes-Brown.
Using the example of a routine traffic stop, Kimes-Brown stated that an officer could arrive at a traffic stop in which the vehicle is carrying fentanyl. Unknown to the officer he or she could breathe in the drug, as could children who are passengers in the vehicle. This could result in a trip to the hospital or other emergency treatment.
“I as a prosecutor can charge a misdemeanor. I find that absolutely appalling,” said Kimes-Brown of the possible charges from the scenario.
In addition to the increased danger to law enforcement and the other members of the community possible, there could also be an impact on the amount of overdose related deaths, as Gallia County Prosecutor Jason Holdren explained.
Holdren spoke about the current state of the drug problem in the area with the increase in overdose deaths in the last 10 years.
There were 15 overdose deaths last year, stated Holdren, with that number possibly over 20 this year, with those related to heroin and fentanyl.
When it comes to what kind of drugs law enforcement is seeing, Holdren explained that “fentanyl is here.” Fentanyl is seen mixed with heroin or other drugs and sold.
“Up to 20 grams (the amount which would be a misdemeanor) is enough to kill a complete community,” said Holdren.
The increase in fentanyl has already changed the way drug cases are handled, said Holdren. Field tests are no longer conducted on drugs found at scenes or during traffic stops as there is an increased danger with fentanyl exposure.
“A lot of well-meaning folks in our state were duped into signing a petition. People who signed that petition were duped,” said Kimes-Brown. She explained that many were told this amendment was the way to provide more treatment options for those addicted and that law enforcement and prosecutors are not there to help.
The prosecutor explained that none of those who were there at the press conference are against drug treatment, and in fact work with offenders to get them in to treatment programs rather than prison.
Regarding the early release provision, Stanley explained that after completion of a class, offenders serving time for crimes other than murder, rape and child molestation, would be eligible for up to a 25 percent early release from prison. This early release would be possible for offenders who have been convicted of crimes such as robbery and felonious assault, said Stanley.
“This would put dangerous offenders back on the streets,” said Stanley.
Additionally, those who are put on probation would not be able to be sent to prison as a consequence of violating their probation.
“Essentially the person would not have to comply with any of the terms of probation and there are no consequences for that,” said Stanley.
The increase in probationers would put a financial strain on county and local governments which are already working hard to get by on the budget they have, explained Commissioner Randy Smith.
The amendment also would send the wrong message to today’s youth, downplaying the seriousness of drugs.
“The idea that we are going to move forward in a state where Issue 1 could become a constitutional amendment is appalling to me,” said Kimes-Brown.
Rather than the proposed constitutional amendment, many of the officials who spoke said that decisions such as changes included in Issue 1 should be addressed by the legislature.
Local officials are often in contact with those at the state level, communicating about things such as the drug issue and what they are seeing on the front lines.
By working with the legislature on changes, funding may be able to come along with the changes to help provide treatment options, detox facilities and other options.
Holdren explained that the representatives and senators are supposed to handle matters such as this, whether it is for stronger laws or to go the other way.
That is part of the legislative process, explained Holdren, adding that judges are elected by the people and currently have the discretion on how to sentence offenders. Under Issue 1, the elected judges would not have discretion on sentencing to treatment, prison or probation.
The passage of Issue 1 would nearly eliminate the drug court programs which are active in Gallia County and many others across the state.
Drug courts have proven successful said Holdren, noting that there have been a number of success stories in the county. If the crimes are made misdemeanors then the felony drug courts are useless, said Holdren.
“Right now the citizens have a huge opportunity to make a change. They hear the misinformation” explained Washington County Chief Deputy Mark Warden.
“This is a very scary proposition for law enforcement…. (there would be an) influx of narcotics into the community. I don’t have the man power to cover it,” said Warden.
For more on State Issue 1, and the cases for and against it, see page A4 of the Sunday Times-Sentinel.
Sarah Hawley is the managing editor of The Daily Sentinel.