Lawmakers may ease penalties, increase treatment for drug possession

The Ohio Senate may vote as early as today on landmark legislation that would lessen the penalties for low-level drug possession charges and increase options for addiction treatment instead of criminal convictions.

Senate Bill 3 calls for reducing low-level, non-violent drug possession charges to misdemeanors, down from felonies. Drug trafficking offenses would remain felonies. The legislation also calls for allowing judges to put a criminal possession case on hold while the defendant goes through court-ordered treatment and then dismiss the case if treatment is successfully completed.

The bill would also expand circumstances when someone may apply to have their criminal records sealed. Criminal records often make it more difficult to get hired.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction could see up to 2,700 fewer offenders sentenced to prison for drug possession if the bill becomes law, according to the Legislative Service Commission analysis. That could save DRC up to $75 million a year, though local trial courts could see higher costs, LSC reported.

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Doug Berman, who directs the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, said in written testimony that incarcerating addicted individuals only exacerbates their problems and puts a strain on the state operating budget.

“Ohio spends $1.8 billion each year on corrections, expenditures that can be usefully reduced if we stop sending low-level, non-violent offenders charged with drug possession to state prisons,” Berman said. He added, “Expanding treatment programs, rather than expanding the number of people with felony records and admissions to prison, can best increase the chances for recovery and success.”

The Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police President David Marcelli said in written testimony that the bill would take away a valuable tool — the threat of felony charges — in investigations. The association opposes reducing heroin, LSD, cocaine and other drug possession into unspecified misdemeanors.

“Ask any narcotics detective anywhere, if you are in possession of 49 doses of heroin, you are a drug dealer. I question the concept that the solution to our state’s opiate crisis is to make it easier for traffickers to sell to our citizens,” he said in his testimony.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, roughly 60% of people arrested test positive for illegal substances, nearly half of incarcerated individuals are clinically addicted, and 80% of all crime offenses stem from drug or alcohol abuse.

In November 2018, Ohio voters rejected state Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have converted low level felony drug offenses into misdemeanors with no jail time for the first two offenses committed within a 24-month period. The issue failed by a 2:1 margin.

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