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Issue 1 Defeat Doesn't Spell End For Sentencing Reform, Supporters Say

New Hampshire State Forensic Lab

For the third time in four years, Ohio voters soundly rejected a constitutional amendment that cost supporters millions to put on the ballot. Issue 1, the drug sentencing ballot proposal, was defeated by a 2-to-1 ratio.

“Despite being outspent on TV $10 million to $1 million, we will defeat this issue soundly because the people of Ohio said no,” said opposition campaign manager David Myhal at a gathering Tuesday night.

Myhal’s comments mirrored what Dale Butland said last year about the statewide issue seeking to bring down the price of prescription drugs: “I think the vast majority of Ohio voters recognize that this was a deeply flawed proposal.”

You might see a trend here. In 2015, campaign leader Curt Steiner celebrated the defeat of a ballot issue to allow for 10 growing sites to produce legal marijuana: “They saw through the smoke screen of slick ads, fancy but deceptive mailings, phony claims about tax revenues, and of course Buddy the marijuana mascot.”

Backers of the marijuana issue in 2015 spent $21.5 million and lost 2-to-1. Supporters of the drug price issue in 2017 raised more than $18 million, but opponents spent more than three times that. Nearly nearly 8 in 10 Ohioans to vote against it.

This year’s amendment would have lowered drug crimes to misdemeanors and channeled the savings from the reduction in the prison population into drug treatment. Unofficial results show that more than 2.7 million Ohioans, or 63 percent, voted against it.

Opponents of Issue 1 included judges, law enforcement, local governments and treatment providers. Myhal calls his group’s opposition campaign a grassroots effort, led by big ad buys, press conferences, information on social media, and 15,000 pieces of literature.

“The overall spend was $1.75 million on our side, and the other side spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million on TV, probably $15 million if you include the $3 million to put it on the ballot,” Myhal says.

And he suggests the figure could be even higher.

Sources say the Yes On 1 side spent at least $7.8 million. Spokesperson Dennis Willard won’t confirm those figures.

“We’re not looking at it that way. We raised a lot of awareness and education about the opioid epidemic and how many people are going without treatment in Ohio,” Willard said. “We also raised a lot of information and education about our overcrowded prison system. We still are going to move forward.”

Some opponents criticized Issue 1 as a creation of out-of-state billionaires, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and philanthropist George Soros. Myhal suggested lawmakers should look at changing some of the requirements to get on the statewide ballot.

Willard also worked with the supporters of last year’s drug price issue, which also was funded largely by activists outside of Ohio. He said ballot issues are important for frustrated citizens.

“No, actually, I really think that it’s critical in Ohio that we continue to protect the people’s rights to go directly to voters when the legislature won’t do their job,” Willard says.

But there’s one thing on which both sides say they agree. 

“Issue 1 was only the beginning,” said activist Shakyra Diaz at a Yes On 1 election night party. “The truth of the matter is that Ohio is still going to be the fifth largest prison state in the nation. By the end of the night, 14 people will die of an overdose. We have a lot of work to do in Ohio, and we’re not going to stop. Ohioans need us to keep going.”

Issue 1 opponents say they want to meet with lawmakers on some solutions. Ohio House Speaker Ryan Smith hasn’t promised to take up any new legislation on criminal justice reform, though, saying he wants to see how a prison diversion pilot program in the current budget is working.