How to Stay Safe: House Bill 230 won't address the overdose crisis

Ohio’s policymakers should take time to read ‘The New Jim Crow’ and move away from passing laws that establish harsher criminal penalties related to drugs.
Ohio Statehouse
Ohio StatehouseSam Howzit for Creative Commons

In 2010, Michelle Alexander, a little-known Ohio State University law professor, published a book that has since become canonical. The New Jim Crow traced the rapid rise of incarceration in the United States that coincided with the declaration of a war on drugs. Alexander points out how the policy served to institutionalize both racism and poverty. For many, the book was a revelation. For some Black Americans, it was not news.

It's not clear Ohio's policymakers have ever read that book – or even skimmed the Wikipedia entry. If they had, they might behave differently in this moment as we again travel down the path to over-incarceration. 

House Bill 230, currently making its way through committee, would create a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for people found responsible for a fentanyl-related overdose death. It would also increase drug trafficking charges for cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl-related compounds. 

In testimony before the House Homeland Security committee on Oct. 25, ACLU of Ohio's Gary Daniels said, "Among its 114 pages, HB 230 increases trafficking penalties at least 29 times [and] felony levels are raised from current law anywhere from 1 to 3 levels, depending on the substance and weight." 

"For 50 years we've done this,” Daniels said. “What other government policy do we see failure and say, 'Hey, let's keep doing this!'" 

When I asked Djuan Wash, deputy executive director of Akron-based Freedom BLOC, about HB 230, he offered a more holistic way to think about the overdose crisis. He said that we need to think about what actually makes people safe. "It's not addressing [the] root causes,” he said.

Wash said that if we focused on meeting people's needs, they would not be harming themselves or others. Criminalization is not a deterrent. 

"Does criminalization actually make you safe? … As someone who used, I was hurting myself more than other people. So is throwing me in prison actually the solution?” said Wash, who also noted the various ways a conviction can hinder a person’s ability to carve out a living following their release, impacting everything from employment to housing. “We build more prisons and put more people in prisons and the problem persists." 

I’ve likely cited these numbers before, but they should be cited again and again: Roughly 78 percent of Ohio residents are white and 12 percent are Black, and yet 43 percent of people in prison are Black to 50 percent white.

I do not doubt that the people who support HB 230 – and who have lost loved ones to overdose – want a safer world. They don't want others to suffer the loss of a friend or a family member. 

But this approach will not do that. Arresting people and Incarcerating people will make the drug supply less safe. It will disrupt communities. It will lead to more overdose deaths. And it will lead to the arrest and incarceration of more Black people in Ohio.

Evidence is clear that if the purpose of these enhancements is to make Ohio safer, we will fail. In a study of places where such drug-induced prosecutions have increased (such as New Jersey, Tennessee, North Carolina, Illinois, Louisiana, and New York) overdose deaths also increased. 

We don't need to learn this lesson again. Too many lives are at risk. 

A friend of mine always says, "Stay safe," when he’s leaving. Over time, I’ve grown fond of this endearing quirk. It's an appropriate send-off for those you care for – especially now. It's no different, really, than the standard, "Take care." 

We all want safety, both for ourselves and each other. We all want to know that our communities are cared for, and that we are loved and held in high esteem. We need to prioritize health and wellness over reactive, brutal policies. We need to advocate for safety, and for safe supply. 

Either the drafters of this legislation did not read The New Jim Crow, or they actually wish to do harm. I still believe in humanity, so I'm hoping it's not the latter.

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