While current drug policy criminalizes addiction and enforcement often targets low-income communities and people of color, the ACLU of Ohio works for fair and sensible drug policies that will support safe and healthy communities across Ohio.
What's Happening in Ohio
Every day nearly 450,000 people languish in jail without ever being convicted of a crime. Ohio’s punitive bail system is costly, racially biased, counterproductive, and a key driver of mass incarceration. People suffer in local jails while awaiting trial, and low-level offenses such as drug possession cause many working Ohioans to lose their jobs. Most importantly, putting bail out of reach for thousands of low-income people violates our fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty. The ACLU of Ohio recommends reasonable and achievable reforms to end this unjust practice.
Read our resource Bail Reform: A Civil Liberties Briefing.
Ohio legislators feed mass incarceration by introducing bills that would send more people to our jails and prison for longer periods of time.
This year, Ohio legislators have already introduced three bills that would expand penalties and sentences for drug use so far this year. SB 1, HB 4, and SB 42 further criminalize drug use, which should be treated through public health methods like rehabilitation, treatment, and education. These misguided bills continue to fill our already-overcrowded prisons and jails, without helping Ohioans.
SB 1: Revise Drug Laws
- Primary Sponsor: Senator Frank LaRose (R)
- Status: Approved by the Senate
- Summary: SB 1 will increase penalties for fentanyl, including low-level possession, and treat mixtures added to fentanyl the same as fentanyl for sentencing purposes. Learn more.
HB 4: Prescribe how cocaine is to be measured for offense
- Primary Sponsors: Representative Robert Cupp (R), Representative John Rogers (D)
- Status: Passed House (97-0); Currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee
- Summary: HB 4 will change how cocaine is measured for determining trafficking and possession sentences, and treat mixtures added to cocaine (like baking soda) the same as cocaine for sentencing purposes. Learn more.
SB 42: Specify that referring to a drug also refers to compounds
- Primary Sponsor: Senator John Eklund (R)
- Status: As Introduced; Currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee
- Summary: SB 42 will expand drug offense penalties to compounds and mixtures – treating mixtures added to drugs the same as the actual drug. Learn more.
Every session of the Ohio General Assembly, laws are introduced to create new crimes and enhance sentences for crimes already on the books. Now our jails and prisons are overflowing, and prisons designed to house 38,000 people hold nearly 51,000. This is mass incarceration by a thousand cuts.
The ACLU of Ohio reviewed all 1,004 bills introduced during the 2015-2016 legislative session and found nearly 1 in 10 included language to lock more people up longer. Sixteen of these bills became law. We’re calling on Ohio’s General Assembly to stop acting as a factory that produces new crimes and longer sentences to support an uninterrupted flow of prisoners into a legal pipeline that ends in jail or prison. Read Ohio’s Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline 2017.
In March and May of 2016, the ACLU of Ohio testified in support of medical marijuana legalization, at the same time calling for more expansive reforms of marijuana laws.
For the 2015 general election on November 3, Ohioans have an unprecedented opportunity to defend their civil liberties by voting on three amendments to the Ohio constitution: yes on Issue 1, no on Issue 2, and yes on Issue 3. The ACLU of Ohio supports redistricting reform (Issue 1) and the legalization of marijuana (Issue 3), but opposes the Ohio Initiated Monopolies Amendment (Issue 2).
Yes on 1
Issue 1 seeks to overhaul Ohio’s partisan system for drawing legislative district maps, a system that has helped one party, either Republicans or Democrats, hold firm control of the Statehouse for decades. It would protect against gerrymandering by prohibiting any redistricting plan from primarily favoring one political party.
Issue 1 will:
- Create a new seven-member bipartisan panel called the “Ohio Redistricting Commission.” The commission must have at least two members from the minority party. It’s to be co-chaired by two members, one chosen by each party.
- Make all commission meetings open to the public. The commission must hold a minimum of three public hearings, and before voting on a district plan, the commission is required to present the proposal to the public and to seek public input.
- Keep communities together by requiring a district plan to split as few counties, municipal corporations, and townships as possible.
- Require at least two votes from each party in order to approve a district plan.
- Create a process for the Supreme Court of Ohio to order the commission to redraw the map if the plan favors one political party.
No on 2
For over a century, Ohioans have had the power to directly amend the state constitution by putting key issues on the ballot. This year, however, Issue 2 would change Ohio’s democratic process to make it harder for certain citizen-initiated constitutional amendments to pass.
Getting initiatives on the ballot in Ohio is difficult and expensive. Citizens should have a reasonable opportunity to put forth a viable ballot initiative.
Read more ↕
Issue 2 will:
- Require voters to approve two questions pertaining to citizen initiatives establishing economic monopolies. Ohio lawmakers crafted Issue 2 in response to the Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Issue 3), which would create 10 facilities with exclusive rights to commercially grow the drug.
- Invalidate any voter-approved initiatives on this year’s ballot that establishes economic monopolies. It would expressly nullify Issue 3 or marijuana legalization.
Yes on 3
In 2012, Ohio law enforcement officers arrested or cited 14,374 people for marijuana-related offenses—94 percent for possession only. Marijuana arrests cost Ohio taxpayers over $120 million in 2010 alone. These arrests are a huge conduit to the judicial system, branding tens of thousands with criminal records and often severely limiting their potential positive impact to themselves, their families and communities thereafter—despite Ohio “decriminalizing” possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana.
Bottom line: the war on drugs is an expensive failure when directed against the marijuana consumer. Over half our country doesn’t think holding small amounts should be a criminal offense. The proposed measure specifies the legal use, cultivation and sale of marijuana in Ohio.
Read more ↕
Issue 3 will:
- Legalize the limited sale and use of recreational and medicinal marijuana and create 10 facilities with exclusive rights to commercially grow the drug.
- Allow anyone at least 21 years old with a valid state license to use, possess, grow, cultivate, and share up to eight ounces of homegrown marijuana and four flowering marijuana plants. It would also allow them to purchase, possess, transport, use and share up to one ounce of marijuana.
- Allow anyone with a certified debilitating medical condition to use medicinal marijuana.
If Issue 3 passes:
- The Fresh Start Act would expunge the records of people convicted of most marijuana-related crimes. The Fresh Start Act, if passed either by the Ohio General Assembly or as a ballot initiative, would give Ohioans with previous marijuana-related offenses a much needed second chance in life.
For more information about your voting rights and early voting opportunities, visit the ACLU Vote Center.
On August 5, 2015, a new bill (HB 298) was introduced to the Ohio Legislature calling for Ohio Works First cash benefit applicants to 1) complete substance abuse screening and, if likelihood of dependence is indicated, 2) undergo physical testing for trace presence of those substances. Applicants failing the test would be referred for treatment and would not receive benefits for at least half a year.
Mike Brickner, senior policy director for American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, pointed out this requirement for testing perpetuates “ugly and false” stereotypes that people using cash assistance are more likely to use drugs. Also, the number receiving Ohio Works First benefits is declining by significant numbers, with children comprising the vast majority of recipients.
Recent research shows the rate of positive results compared with total welfare applicants in six out of seven states presently using drug testing for this purpose is well below 1 percent in each case—dwarfed by the national drug use average of 9.4 percent.
Other factors also weigh against testing. It well may represent a breach in constitutionality. Add to this reduced funding for treatment services and current capacity below what’s needed just to treat those needing services now. This suggests a long wait for helping hands to many who can least afford to go without them.
Ohio has the troubling distinction of ranking fourth among all 50 states in terms of severity of prison overcapacity, according to the recent U.S. Department of Justice report, Prisoners in 2013. More than one of every four incarcerations is for drug offenses and, of these offenses, roughly half are simply for possession, a non-violent crime.
Those interested in seeing federal and Ohio prison systems’ overcrowding ameliorated and drug policies further modernized and humanized should follow the progress of U.S. House Bill 2944. It was introduced June 25, 2015, by former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-Virginia).
Federal initiatives like this bipartisan one do have impact on state governments’ law enforcement and judicial thinking; this proposed legislation could have impact down the road in Ohio. A two-page summary shows the bill’s main features, among which are:
- Limiting application of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing.
- Sizably expanding existing “safety valves” allowing courts to resort to imprisonment less often, especially in less serious, drug-related cases.
- Reducing necessity for long prison sentences for second-offense drug cases and life sentences for third-time drug offenders.
- Expanding compassionate release and elderly prisoner release programs.
At present H.R. 2944 is under initial congressional committee study prior to movement to the U.S. House of Representatives.
America’s addiction to incarceration has caused the prison population to skyrocket in the past four decades. Criminalization of addiction has fueled this increase.
Nearly half of all those incarcerated in state prisons are nonviolent offenders, and nearly half of those offenders are serving time for low-level drug offenses. People from low-income communities and people of color are often most affected. Racial disparities are especially prevalent with marijuana arrests.
The Ohio General Assembly recently enacted a bill and is considering others to address addiction instead of further criminalizing it.
H.B. 170 – Opioid Overdose Prevention Prescription Access (enacted): expands the list of licensed health professionals, emergency responders, or peace officers who may prescribe or administer naloxone (commonly known as Narcan), a pharmaceutical drug used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose.
H.B. 363 – Immunity in Drug Related Emergencies (pending): provides immunity from criminal liability for those who seek help for either themselves or others when involved in a drug-related medical emergency.
H.B. 92 – Syringe Exchange Programs (pending): authorizes local boards of health to establish syringe exchanges.
Locking people up is not the way to combat drug use in Ohio. The focus must be on public health, rehabilitation, and decriminalization.
In the 2011-2012 session, legislators passed sentencing reform legislation, a good first step in criminal justice reform. However, Ohio prisons are still at 128% capacity. In a recent article, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Mohr predicted that overcrowding could rise to 154.1%, if the department were to take a 10% budget cut.
The ACLU of Ohio recommends the following policy changes which will reduce the prison population:
- Increase the number of earned credit opportunities for eligible inmates.
- Increase diversion of low-level non-violent offenders into substance abuse and mental health programs.
- Release aging state prisoners who pose no substantial public safety threat through age-based parole programs.
- Increase educational and rehabilitative programming in prison to jumpstart the reentry process and ensure lower recidivism rates.
 Johnson, A (December 10, 2012). Four Ohio prisons face possibility of closure under budget cuts. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved from http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2012/12/10/five-ohio-prisons-face-possibility-of-closure-under-budget-cuts.html
 Johnson, A. (January 7, 2013). Drug use in Ohio’s prisons spiked in ’12. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved from http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/01/07/drug-use-in-ohios-prisons-spiked-in-12.html
The ACLU of Ohio is a founding member of Citizens for a Safe & Fair Cleveland, a coalition created to work towards unbiased law enforcement and judicial equity as related to drug laws.
In 2008, the coalition commissioned a study to examine the selective enforcement of drug laws in Cuyahoga County. Selective Enforcement of Drug Laws in Cuyahoga County, Ohio: A Report on the Racial Effects of Geographic Disparities in Arrest Patterns finds that African Americans and other minorities in the city of Cleveland are more often charged with felony drug possession than their suburban peers.
Using the report as a resource, the coalition successfully lobbied Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson to change the city’s procedure for handling drug paraphernalia cases to reflect those followed by greater Cuyahoga County.
In spring 2012, the Ohio State Senate attempted to add a controversial provision to the state budget review bill that would have required some Ohioans to a take drug tests before receiving public assistance.
The provision was dropped after a firestorm of criticism. However, some lawmakers, intent on following Florida’s bad example, are already planning on reintroducing the plan as a piece of standalone legislation. Governor John Kasich, who previously indicated that he would not support this type of legislation, now says the he would back the plan.
Despite many assumptions to the contrary, government assistance recipients are no more likely to use drugs than the rest of the general population. In fact, 70 percent of all illicit drug users (not counting alcohol) ages 18-49 are employed full time.
The ACLU argues that mandatory drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. Florida’s legislation has already been blocked by a federal judge, and an executive order from Florida Governor Rick Scott targeting state workers for mandatory drug tests has also been struck down.
In addition to their well-documented constitutional problems, these policies are also fiscally unsound. Florida also learned this lesson the hard way when they realized it cost the state more to reimburse those who tested negative than they would have paid out to those who tested positive.
An ACLU supporter recently wrote about his personal objections to this policy. Read about it here.
Nearly 20 percent of Ohio’s inmates come from Cuyahoga County, meaning that Cuyahoga Country residents are severely over-represented in state prisons. Much of this is due to biased enforcement of drug-related crimes, based on race and geography.
On June 16, 2011, the ACLU of Ohio released “Overcharging, Overspending, Overlooking: Cuyahoga County’s Costly War on Drugs“. The report was made possible with support from the Drug Policy Alliance. It looks at the impact these policies have had on Cuyahoga County, and echoes a 2008 report commissioned by Citizens for a Safe and Fair Cleveland.
Although whites use and sell drugs at a similar rate to people of color, African Americans in Cuyahoga County are more likely than whites to be convicted of a felony drug offense. Suburban and out-of-town whites are more likely to receive a misdemeanor plea deal and access to diversion programs.
The ACLU of Ohio has focused on reducing disparities in Cuyahoga County through Citizens for a Safe and Fair Cleveland, a coalition that works for unbiased law enforcement and judicial equity for drug laws.
In 2008, the coalition found that many people of color in Cleveland were charged with felonies simply for having residue on paraphernalia. In other areas of the county, similar crimes were prosecuted as a misdemeanor. The coalition successfully lobbied Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson to change the city’s procedure for handling drug paraphernalia cases to reflect those followed by greater Cuyahoga County.