Back of white man with white cop hand putting handcuffs on him

This essay poses reply to the polemics being waged against Ohio Issue 1, which are gaining strong momentum across media channels in the run-up to the election. These include the Issue’s rejection by judges of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, reported on the front page of the Dayton Daily News on Oct. 29, in lamentably one-sided coverage; State Rep. Jim Butler’s blunt stance voiced at a recent Oakwood City Council meeting; and Dayton attorney Diane DePescale’s oversimplified editorial in the Oakwood Register on Oct. 24; to name a few.

These criticisms do give voice to some nontrivial arguments and concerns inherent in an amendment initiative, and deserve our full attention. But too many of these are tableaux of selective truths designed to stoke fear or appeal to the comforts of status-quo, pass-the-buck politics. We would be served better by recommitting the conversation to honest critical debate based on facts, intellectual bona fides, and reasonable discussion of the amendment’s social-legal purposes and consequences.

To kindle that conversation, I urge readers to consult the DDN’s article titled “Cutting through the Hype: What Issue 1 Would Mean in Ohio” by Katie Wedell (Oct. 21, 2018). It provides the most informative, fair-and-balanced presentation of the claims on both sides of the issue. The full text of the amendment’s formal language can be found online. It has also been circulating as print inserts in local papers across the state, as required by Constitution bylaws.

My own hot take follows, based on data found in these and other documents.

Opponents of Issue 1 spin it like this: passing Issue 1 will free many violent criminals, hamstring judges from “properly” sentencing those accused of drug-related offenses, eliminate drug courts while spiking work backlogs in municipal judicial systems, and allow fentanyl dealers off the hook. It will do this while also (the horror!) transforming the presumably sacrosanct Ohio Constitution. This doom-and-gloom rhetoric, with its Nixonian-lite appeal to the law-and-order/spare-the-rod crowds, loses its grip on the imagination upon closer inspection of the details and honest consideration of potential effects.

No violent criminals will be summarily exonerated or let out into the streets. There are many qualifications and preventative measures stipulated in the language of the amendment that protect against this reasonable concern. Consult the sources above for the technical details.

Nor are drug courts prohibited by this amendment. Nor would the need for them simply evaporate. That need might, if all goes well, shrink. But why would reducing part of a bloated bureaucratic system be anathema to any voters who wish to streamline government operations?

Nor is a constitutional amendment so difficult to remediate if all goes asunder. Many grumbling judges, prosecutors, and sheriffs would have us think differently. Some warn (complain) that the amendment’s effects will load the system down (put extra work on their desks). Others sound like true believers in sacred texts, rankled by the idea that foundational documents could ever be tweaked or updated to better align them with changing attitudes and times. Opponents would like us to believe that, in what must be a mysterious Freemason ritual, Issue 1 affixes legal text in ways that make it inviolable to reversal or revision. We would be locked in, forever bound to the prison of the legal discourse. “Prisoners, you just don’t know what it’s like to be so shackled like this!”

Were Issue 1 to lead to the “disasters” its opponents prophesize (it won’t), with calamitous social and legal ramifications coursing through our social fabric (it won’t), the assembly and voters have full recourse to redact it on the next ballot. Article XVI of the Ohio Constitution stipulates that a 60% vote in the Ohio State Assembly puts a new amendment up for statewide approval. A special election can be called if we simply cannot wait. Are we so cynical to think 41% of our lawmakers, facing the kind of dystopian catastrophe the opponents like to conjure, would simply refuse to act? I have at least that much faith in the leaders weelect: that they will react wisely and vote swiftly were the sky to start falling (it won’t).

I understand the reflexive pushback. Constitutions and their emendations are no trifling matters. They carry the most profound consequences in law and life. And judges and lawyers prefer clarity in legal documentation and argumentation, parameters they are familiar with, and leverage. But folks who insinuate amendments are irreversible and constitutions inflexible are trafficking in hyperbole, and possibly clinging to a castle-in-the-sand belief that our political leaders and lawmakers produce inspired documents: texts so flawless and sanctified they are immune to revision or cannot bear the burden of additional verbiage.

The motives of judges publicly decrying Issue 1 deserve special examination. Some express genuine worry about how some attorneys might try to game the language or overplay their hands in court. Fair enough. But let’s remind ourselves that any change, be it statute or constitutional, means the system needs to adapt and undergo some growing pains.

Others, however, seem to perceive drug-sentence guidelines as an affront to their professional/personal autonomy on the bench. Why? Do judges alone know best when it comes to prison sentences for drug possession? Do they not abide by sentence guidelines otherwise? We hope our judges act objectively, on a case-by-case basis, in light of all available evidence and history, and in the best interest of all parties involved. But justice officials are human, prone to biases and in need of guidance, oversight, and input from the citizenry they preside over. Checks and balances, including smart guidelines like Issue 1 provides, are needed across the board: for citizens, for lawmakers, for police, and for even the judiciary. This amendment would assure legal sentences better match what drug possession charges in today’s society truly warrant.

Sadly, legislative moves to correct outdated drug sentencing and rehabilitation efforts have failed. There are no indicators that this entrenched pattern will change. A constitutional amendment by ballot initiative—democracy in the purest sense of the term—will force the hand of lawmakers and justices now. Not perhaps. Not later, in some vague future state wherein legislators finally get on the same page to act decisively. Now. We need action, not crossed fingers and blithe hope that the perfect future solution will present itself in the Statehouse.

As for extremely hazardous drugs like fentanyl, no dealers will get off the hook. The Ohio Criminal Code stipulates that “bulk amounts” of different illegal drugs are calculated using pharmacological manuals and formularies. Individuals caught with “bulk amounts” will still be considered traffickers and handily prosecuted as felons, with prison time attached if appropriate.

You might see this number being thrown around: 20 grams. You might be told this is the threshold of bulk amount for all drugs, fentanyl included. This is patently false. It’s 20 grams or five times the maximum daily dose: see Ohio Code 2925.01.d ( Twenty grams of fentanyl could indeed be fatal for thousands of exposed people, as the shock mongers will breathlessly tell you. Judge Gregory Singer makes sure we know that 19 grams could kill, very specifically, “busloads of kids.” The Republican Singer also suggests that dealers from all our neighboring states will start to ingress into Ohio—an infestation, you could say, perhaps by caravan.

The inconvenient fact for these shock arguments: the bulk amount of fentanyl (i.e. five times the daily dose according to pharmaceutical manuals) is 0.048 grams. Anyone carrying 0.048 grams is carrying “bulk.” That individual can, should, and will continue to be prosecuted for a trafficking felony, not a misdemeanor possession charge. None of this will change with the amendment’s passage.

What passage will do is contribute some starter piece to the long-overdue reform of our criminal-justice and prison system. This is a system that, across America, has perpetuated racial inequalities; created a profit-based, state-subsidized cottage industry of private prisons; and locks up its citizens, often according to outdated and racially tinged drug statues, at far higher rates than any nation in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and many developing countries. Not to be overlooked, the effects of the amendment are also likely to save taxpayers money, at least according to the best multifactorial economic models used to crunch and predict such numbers.

Is Issue 1 a silver bullet? Will this single amendment deliver a complete and guaranteed solution to a raft of thorny, imbricated problems that include, among other things, local and international drug trafficking; substance abuse and drug-crime recidivism; the cultural upheavals and economic stagnation being felt across the American middle classes, especially in Rust Belt states; psychosocial hopelessness underwritten by histories of race and class inequalities; and systems of justice and punishment that are overworked and possibly emotionally desensitized? It would be presumptuous to answer “yes” to such questions.

But passing Issue 1 would be a firm step in the right direction, not only for Ohio but our nation, in reforming drug sentences and prison culture. Other states will look to Ohio for constitutional and legal guidance for their own drug and prison problems, for how to embark on bold change. Ohio could be a beacon for starting to tackle one of America’s most elusive and urgent problems.

This is precisely why there are non-Ohioans supporting passage. Besides the fact that it is far from unusual for people from one state to support voters in another in passing legislation or stumping for candidates (just look at what presidents do every election cycle), this issue has resonance across the country. That should be a point of pride for Ohioans, not an excuse to indulge in state-against-state xenophobia or a justification for casting aspersions at alleged “outsiders.” These “outsiders” happen to be our fellow citizens, who want to see positive change based on ethical principles steering politics at all levels—not fear, apathy, or NIMBY attitudes.

Please don’t take my word for any of this. I again urge you, before going to the polls Nov. 6, to consult the DDN article and the amendment’s language. Use those sources as the gateway to making up your mind. Arrive at your decision with all the facts and debates in clear sight. Do not rely solely on the clamoring fear-based arguments posited by the issue’s most vocally strident opponents. I am in favor and will vote YES. What will you do?

Nick Pici is a current Ohio resident, Oakwood High School graduate, and University of Dayton alumnus (BA and MA). He received his PhD in literature and the cognitive humanities at the University of California Santa Barbara.