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Candidates Propose Decriminalizing Opioids. What Would That Look Like In Ohio?

During Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate in Westerville, two candidates discussed the idea of decriminalizing opioids.

"We need to decriminalize opioids for personal use. We need to let this country know this is not a personal failing, this was a systemic government failing,” said entrepreneur and presidential candidate Andrew Yang. “Then we need to open up safe consumption and safe injection sites around the country because they save lives.”

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rouke also voiced support for the idea.

But what would decriminalizing opioids look like in a state like Ohio, which has been hit hard by the opioid crisis?

As it stands now, nearly 15% of Ohio's prison population is behind bars for drug possession, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. Ten percent of the prison population has drug trafficking charges and 7% have burglary charges, which are often tied to addiction.

The prison system does not break down charges by substance, but experts do point to the opioid crisis as fueling rapid growth in the prison population.

"Each week on Wednesday we do an orientation with our women," said Teri Bauldoff, the warden of the Ohio Reformatory for Women in an interview with WOSU earlier this year. The Marysville facility is the oldest and largest female prison in the state, and one of the largest female prisons in the country.

"While going through the services we offer, I say, 'We understand that many of you may have drugs in your charge somehow, and raise your hand if you think you need recovery services.' And most of them do," Bauldoff said.

Outside the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOsu
Outside the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio.

Decriminalizing opioids would be a significant about-face in the state's approach to addiction. If fewer people are sent to prison for drug use, more would turn to rehabilitation programs instead. However, those programs are already overburdened and have long waitlists. 

"There are too many barriers for those in addiction to get to a bed," says Christopher Menapace, assistant chief at the Whitehall Fire Department.

The Whitehall Fire Department has a program that's a partnership with rehabilitation centers where anyone can come to the station and ask for help with their addiction. 

"Everything costs money," he says. "And if you don't have private insurance then there are a tremendous number of resources instantaneously removed from your ability to be admitted."

Paradoxically, some have said that they were only able to get the addiction services they needed once they were in prison. 

Stephanie Pollock is serving a 7.5-year sentence inside the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU
Stephanie Pollock is serving a 7.5-year sentence inside the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

"I was at the point in my addiction where I wasn't enjoying it," said Stephanie Pollack in an interview earlier this year. She's an inmate in the Ohio Reformatory for Women's addiction treatment unit. 

"I obviously wanted out of it, but you're frozen and you don't know how to get there," she said. "I truly believe had I not come to prison I wouldn't have been able to attain that."

Others argue that decriminalizing a substance that has caused so much damage to families and communities in Ohio would make the crisis worse. 

Ohio has the second-highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the country.

Copyright 2019 WOSU 89.7 NPR News

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.