Ohio lawmakers look to change punishment for minor drug crimes

Drug dealers will still face prison time but people caught carrying smaller amounts of drugs to feed their addictions will be given options, including seeking treatment in lieu of a conviction, under a new reform bill pending in the Ohio Senate.

Senate Bill 3 calls for reclassifying many drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors; establishing three tiers of drug trafficking offenses; and wiping out prosecution for possession of trace amounts of drugs, said state Sen. John Eklund, R-Chardon, the bill co-sponsor.

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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. Eklund noted that judges would also be allowed to order more treatment, recognizing that failure is common in drug rehab and recovery.

“Personally, my goal is that we help who are addicted to drugs get off of them before they die,” Eklund said. Also, the bill seeks to give more tools to judges and courts to address the drug addiction crisis, he added.

A high priority of legislative leaders, the bill has bipartisan support.

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In November, 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.

State Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Cortland, said many people liked the proposal but didn’t support installing the changes in the state constitution.

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O’Brien said he believes SB3 changes could impact as many as 2,000 people who are imprisoned each year on low-level drug possession convictions and the legislation could lead to $100 million in cost avoidance in the state prison system.

The 500-page bill, which Eklund and O’Brien hope to pass out of the Senate by June, seeks to draw a distinction between drug crimes perpetrated by dealers and those committed by people in the throes of addiction.

It would also make it easier for family members to petition probate court to force a loved one into drug treatment. Currently, the program requires the family to post half of the cost of rehab in cash — something many Ohioans lack. SB3 would allow family members to show proof of an insurance policy as a means to pay for the treatment. —

ACLU of Ohio lobbyist Gary Daniels said the civil liberties group would like to see the bill mandate more data collection so it can be determined down the road what changes work and what ones don’t. The ACLU also would like the law to apply retroactively to the 2,000 people now in state prison on low-level felony drug possession convictions.

O’Brien and Eklund said making it retroactive involves large and daunting logistics.

The bill doesn’t change current laws when violations involve date rape drugs or fentanyl-related compounds, the bill sponsors said.

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