Issue 1 removes person’s motivation to get clean

Proponents of Issue 1 believe 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 a drug offender’s involvement in the criminal justice system can present a meaningful opportunity for recovery through Ohio’s drug treatment courts.

Anyone who has watched 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 before recovery is possible. Addicts must become sick and tired of being so sick and tired before they realize they are powerless over their addiction and the only way to achieve their life is through treatment. 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 see themselves in the friend who just overdosed and died, or when their family and friends participate in an intervention forcing them to choose between substance abuse or treatment to save their family.

Rock bottom for addicts also often happens when they are 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 stand before a judge who’s chosen to operate a drug treatment court, research shows 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 easy to blame faceless, nameless criminal justice system for Ohio’s substance addiction problem or to say that system isn’t doing enough to treat substance addiction. The criminal justice system continues to evolve. During the 1970s war on drugs, 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 to obtain compliance. This “carrot and stick” method is known as coercive drug treatment. It is used nationwide.

But coercive drug treatment consisting 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 or part of specialized treatment offered. The common elements of drug treatment courts are addict accountability and intensive court supervision. There are weekly appearances before the judge, increased contact with probation officers, substance-abuse treatment and regular drug tests.

Research shows Ohio’s drug treatment courts are having an impact on reducing substance addiction. Published findings demonstrate drug courts are having a significant and appreciable effect on recidivism and that drug courts are cost effective.

There is more to do to tackle the substance addiction problem Ohio faces, 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 postpone the inevitable rock bottom for those crashing their life on the rocks of substance addiction. Or worse, addicts will reach a point from which recovery is impossible.

Any successful drug court graduate will tell you that without impending threat of the loss of freedom 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. 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 L. Kennedy is an Ohio Supreme Court justice.


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