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Issue 1 would hinder addiction fight

Proponents of Issue 1 believe that Ohio can solve substance addiction by essentially decriminalizing the possession of any drug of abuse of less than 20 grams by reducing possession to a misdemeanor and by limiting jail sentences for probation violations. But the truth is that a drug offender’s involvement in the criminal justice system—with freedom on the line—can present a meaningful opportunity for recovery through Ohio’s drug treatment courts.

Anyone who has watched, in anguish, as a loved one battles substance addiction knows – recovery will not occur until there is a rock bottom. Sadly, addicts will have to crash their life on the rocks of substance abuse often enough, long enough, and hard enough, before recovery is possible.

Addicts have to become sick and tired of being so sick and tired before they realize that they are powerless over their addiction and the only way to achieve the life they were born to live is to seek treatment. But until rock bottom occurs, substance addiction is a long, downward, cyclical spiral.

Different life events trigger rock bottom. For some, it happens when they lose a job or two, or when they see themselves in the friend who just overdosed and died, or when their family and friends participate in an intervention and they are forced to choose between substance abuse or treatment to save their family.

Often, however, rock bottom for addicts happens when they are caught in and convicted of a criminal act, and stand before a judge awaiting sentencing, where freedom and liberty hang in the balance. If they are ready and willing to receive treatment and lucky enough to be standing before a judge who has chosen to operate a drug treatment court, the research shows that they are in the best possible position to beat substance addiction and never return to the criminal justice system.

The one constant among successful drug court graduates is that they were addicts who hit rock bottom and chose treatment—and the judges overseeing their cases always had the threat of incarceration for a failure to comply.

It’s an easy sound bite to blame the faceless, nameless criminal justice system for Ohio’s substance addiction problem or to say that the criminal justice system isn’t doing enough to treat substance addiction. The criminal justice system continues to evolve. During the war on drugs in the 1970s, substance-addiction treatment became a probation tool. An offender’s failure to comply with court-ordered treatment gave the judge discretion to impose appropriate sanctions in order to obtain compliance. This “carrot and stick” method has become widely known as coercive drug treatment and is used throughout the United  States.

But coercive drug treatment consisting of a term of probation and substance addiction treatment met with limited success. We needed to do more, and with the creation of drug treatment courts, we have.

In 1995, Ohio opened its first drug treatment court. Today, more than 100 specialty courts operate across Ohio and substance addiction is the focus of or part of the specialized treatment being offered. Not all drug treatment courts operate the same way, but the common elements are accountability of the addict and intensive supervision by the court.

There are weekly appearances before the judge, increased contact with probation officers, substance-abuse treatment, and regular drug tests.

Research on the impact Ohio’s drug treatment courts have made on reducing substance addiction and recidivism is promising. These published findings demonstrate drug courts are having a significant and appreciable effect on recidivism and that drug courts are cost-effective.

Is there more to do to tackle the substance addiction problem Ohio faces? Yes. But our efforts will not be aided by gutting the most effective drug court treatment programs Ohio has by removing the “stick” from coercive drug treatment. The unintended consequence of the passage of Issue 1 is that we will simply postpone the inevitable rock bottom for those crashing their life on the rocks of substance addiction. Or worse, with the increasing lethalness of drugs of addiction, addicts will reach a point from which recovery is impossible.

Any successful drug court graduate will tell you that without the impending threat of the loss of freedom and liberty they never would have chosen and stayed the course of recovery.

Now is the time—with research evidence in hand that Ohio’s drug treatment courts are cost effectively reducing recidivism—to grow drug treatment courts, experiment with the development of more joint-jurisdiction drug treatment courts, and integrate additional life-skill facets into our existing drug treatment courts to strengthen and increase successful outcomes.

Substance addiction recovery occurs one day at a time, growing drug treatment courts occurs one judge at a time, and eradicating substance addiction occurs one recovering addict at a time. Ohio’s continued success in reducing substance addiction should be founded on what we know is working – the implementation of more drug treatment courts and the development of life-skill programs into our drug courts to bring holistic treatment to the addict. But in order to do that, the drug treatment court model requires a “stick.”

We cannot make somebody want treatment, but the possibility of prison can provide personal motivation for change, and spark an appreciable desire to live a substance-free life.

If we remove the consequences of failure—as Issue 1 will—we limit each addict’s chance for success.


Sharon Kennedy is a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court. The court’s general contact is 614-387-9000.