Ohio Senate passes bill to reclassify low-level drug possession charges

By Todd DeFeo - The Center Square

COLUMBUS — The state Senate passed bipartisan legislation that proponents say gives better treatment options to low-level, non-violent offenders while strengthening penalties for drug traffickers.

Senate Bill 3 makes possession of small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor “with a presumption of treatment,” but a judge could still sentence offenders to up to one year in jail. The legislation heads to the Ohio House for further consideration.

While the bill lessens penalties for low-level, non-violent offenders, it does not reduce penalties for charges stemming from possession of fentanyl and sexual assault-enabling drugs. Additionally, individuals could face felony possession charges if they have been convicted of two possession offenses in three years.

“Reclassifying low-level drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors ensures that judges have the flexibility to administer justice while steering those suffering from addiction into treatment instead of prison cells,” Robert Alt, president and chief executive officer of The Buckeye Institute, said in a statement. “These commonsense policy reforms are effective, will save taxpayer money – especially needed with the projected budget shortfalls – and keep our communities safer.”

The bill could reduce costs for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) by $75 million annually as upwards of 2,700 fewer offenders per year could be sentenced to prison for drug possession charges, according to a Legislative Service Commission (LSC) analysis.

“Low-level, non-violent drug offenders make up the fastest growing portion of the state’s prison population,” state Sen. John Eklund, R-Munson Township, said in a statement. “The goal of Senate Bill 3 is to ‘arrest’ the problem and get Ohioans who are struggling with addiction help before their offenses could mean jail time.

“We want people to get better and move on to lead productive lives, and I have great appreciation for the Ohioans who shared their very personal stories and spent countless hours during this process to help us provide real hope and real progress,” Eklund added.

Offenders who successfully complete drug court or intervention could have their misdemeanor possession and “F4” and “F5” drug possession charges sealed.

However, prosecutors can still level trafficking charges for anyone who possesses large amounts of drugs or plans to sell or distribute heroin. The bill, which received support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Policy Matters Ohio, also keeps mandatory prison sentences for high-level trafficking offenses. ling with addiction out of prison, while punishing the right people – drug traffickers. This is the crux of SB 3.”

By Todd DeFeo

The Center Square