The Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition on Thursday heard from an area farmer about his experiences with the opioid crisis and entertained debate between local officials and a group of advocates on a proposed amendment to the state constitution aimed at reducing prison incarceration.
Roger Winemiller, a Clinton County farmer, told the coalition he became an unlikely advocate for drug abuse prevention after two of his three children died from drug overdoses in the space of nine months.
“I’ve been living the life of addiction through my three kids,” Winemiller said. “It’s been a living hell.”
Winemiller’s daughter overdosed and died the night before Easter two years ago. The farmer said he found her body in the bathroom and performed CPR, but it was too late.
His son died months later from an overdose.
The day after the funeral, Winemiller said, his church held a funeral for another young man who died from a drug overdose.
Winemiller’s surviving son, who was also addicted to drugs, is now more than 14 months into recovery and currently has a job laying fiber optics.
Winemiller said he has frequently driven his son to drug treatment in Xenia and back to Wilmington to report to probation, leaving Winemiller little time for his farming.
Winemiller said the opioid crisis is prevalent in rural areas and farms in particular due to frequent work injuries and the painkillers prescribed to treat them.
“I’ve been on opioids before,” he said.
Winemiller said he has spoken at the Ohio Farmers Union Annual Convention, has been interviewed by the New York Times, NBC and RFD-TV, and will soon be featured on PBS.
The farmer said he advocates to reduce the stigma of drug abuse and addiction and hopes to help end drug abuse so others don’t have to experience his pain.
“I don’t want anybody to live the hell I’ve lived,” he said.
The coalition also heard from policy advocates Stephen JohnsonGrove and Amanda Hoyt about a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would reduce the state’s prison population and use the savings to fund drug treatment programs, expanded probation services and and justice system reform.
According to a summary of the amendment, the measure would reclassify fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug possession charges as misdemeanor offenses, making them no longer eligible for prison time as a penalty; expand the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s earned credit program to reduce productive prisoners’ sentences; and prohibit prison time for probation (community control) violations.
According to the summary, the amendment would save an estimated $100 million per year in Ohio’s prison budget, which would then be distributed to local communties.
Seventy percent of the savings would go toward drug treatment programs and facilities, while 15 percent would go toward victim trauma programs and 15 percent would go to local justice system reform initiatives.
JohnsonGrove said the state already has institutions and systems in place to provide a safer and more healing-oriented justice system, but lacks funding.
Meanwhile, he said the state pays $25,000 per prisoner per year.
“We have all these systems… but with all the investment, families like Roger’s are still in excruciating pain,” he said.
JohnsonGrove said the amendment would use “modest” measures to reduce the prison population and provide local justice systems with more funding in hopes of eventually “breaking the addiction to prison.”
JohnsonGrove added that since the war on drugs was declared in the 1970s, “prison has become the solution to everything.”
Hoyt said the amendment is simply “trying something new” in an effort to break what she described as a “cycle of insanity” — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss and Hillsboro Municipal Court Judge David McKenna, both present at the meeting, were outspoken against the amendment, with Coss arguing that while he supports reclassifying the felonies, the amendment will not provide enough money to pay for the adjustments that would have to be made locally.
The judge also said that while he doesn’t believe those charged with drug possession or community control violations should always go to prison, in some cases it’s necessary to protect them and the public.
“Prison isn’t the place for users, but the ones I do send, it’s because I have no choice,” he added.
Coss said he would email further commentary to JohnsonGrove and Hoyt.
Among other complaints, McKenna said the amendment strips down “judicial discretion,” and said if the measure is approved, he will identify loopholes.
“We will find ways around this,” he said.
The municipal judge said the amendment takes away the “stick” in the “carrot and stick” analogy, which represents reward and threat of punishment — the punishment being prison time.
And while McKenna said he as “never believed in sending people to prison to cure them,” as evidenced by a medically assisted treatment program offered by his court, reclassifying felonies and misdemeanors “dumps prisoners back” into local jails, which are already overcrowded.
The proposed amendment is still in the petition process.
Reach David Wright at937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.