Ohio's Issue One, a constitutional amendment that gives drug offenders treatment rather than incarceration, has run into some problems that California's treatment initiative, which was approved by a large margin, did not encounter. Unlike California's Proposition 36, the Ohio measure faces an actively hostile governor in Republican Bob Taft, and also unlike California, where Prop. 36 altered state law, the Ohio initiative authorizes a change in the state constitution, a move that has angered many of the state's judges.
But more than anything else, the people working to pass the initiative, Ohio's Campaign for New Drug Policies, are worried about ballot language that says the initiative will cost $247 million over seven years. The language misleads voters, proponents charge, because the initiative will actually save the state money -- campaigners say that because treatment is so much less expensive than incarceration, the initiative will save the cash-strapped state a net $21 million a year.
While in numerous articles the Ohio press has reported that the campaign approved the ballot language and therefore has no grounds to criticize it, campaign spokesman Rob Stewart told DRCNet there was nothing they could do about the ballot language once it was approved. "It was a done deal," said Stewart. "There was no recourse." Stewart added that the campaign made many requests to change the ballot wording and those requests were denied. One request that was met by the board was to add the words "over seven years" after $247 million.
Numerous though not all polls done using this ballot language have shown the initiative losing, while before it was winning. The campaign is trying to correct the problem informing voters before they leave for the polls that giving drug offenders treatment rather than incarceration will save, not cost the state money.
Polls that ask voters whether they support drug treatment at a cost of $247 million over 7 years show more than 50% are opposed to the initiative, while polls that ask voters to let nonviolent drug offenders choose treatment instead of jail time show 60% would vote for Initiative One. Campaigners believe they need to frame the issue for voters before they enter the ballot box. As one pollster told the Columbus Dispatch, "Most voters are going to have an idea in advance of how they are going to vote. The issue of how much this would cost or save (taxpayers) is vague."
While the initiative will save the save the state $20 million a year and similar initiatives have saved the states of California and Arizona money, the campaign has had trouble enlisting the support of fiscal conservatives around the state because, as Stewart puts it, they're mostly Republican and therefore lined up behind Taft. The governor, who is also involved in a competitive reelection campaign, has been actively involved in trying to defeat the measure, working closely with the campaign against the initiative, Ohioans Against Unsafe Drug Laws. Much of the campaign rhetoric against Question One focuses on coercion in drug treatment. An editorial in the Akron Beacon Journal sums up the anti-viewpoint: "Treatment belongs at the center of any strategy to fight drug use. For treatment to work, there must be the prospect of something worse."
But Stewart argued that for treatment to work it needs to be properly funded. He also said the initiative is not all carrot, no stick: After the third drug offense, drug users will face incarceration. Stewart said that robust treatment services are cheaper and more effective than just throwing someone in jail over the weekend, which the state often does with first time drug offenders. Ohioans may not be convinced of the efficacy of treatment because what is currently available in Ohio is insufficient, Stewart added. Also, said Stewart, Issue One would allow users to enter treatment prior to conviction, possibly saving them from a criminal record.
Others opponents argue that the big problem with Issue One is that it is a constitutional amendment. Numerous state judges, who see the initiative as usurping their authority and who are pleased with the state's drug court system, have come out to help Taft defeat the measure. As Richard Wolfe, a campaign funder and cousin of John Wolfe, the publisher of the Columbus Dispatch (which opposes the initiative), put it, the initiative's chances of passing are "worsened due to the fact that Issue One is a constitutional change, not just a statute addition as in California. Why put drug laws in the Ohio Constitution is the question they all ask." Wolfe and Wolfe's divergent efforts on Question One were featured in a cover article titled "The Lone Wolfe" in another Columbus newspaper, "The Other Paper."
But supporters say that the drug laws need to be put in the constitution to prevent hostile lawmakers from rewriting the legislation if it passes. In Arizona a similar initiative was defanged by lawmakers and supporters had to pass a constitutional amendment to keep legislators from toying with it.
As Issue One enters its final week, campaigners are using a last minute advertising blitz to help voters decide in favor of the initiative before they enter the polling booth and see the dreaded $247 million. With poll results flip-flopping around the $247 million on the ballot language, this final push will be critical. In a poll released Tuesday, the Toledo Blade found that likely voters supported the idea of treatment over jail for drug offenders by a margin of 46% to 26%, but when it came to Issue One as written and presented on the ballot, the numbers were favorable for Issue One victory, but much, much tighter: 48% in favor, 44% opposed, with a margin of error of 4.1%. In other words, it should be a nail-biter in Ohio on Tuesday.