Even before it gets to the ballot, a proposed state constitutional
amendment to treat drug offenders instead of jailing them faces stiff
opposition from the Taft administration.

Yesterday, backers of the Ohio Campaign for New Drug Policies charged that
the administration illegally mounted a behind-the-scenes campaign against
the issue using state employees and state facilities at taxpayer expense.

"State officials have plotted to blockade our initiative, to keep it off
the ballot, and ultimately to confuse and scare voters into opposing it,"
said Edward J. Orlett, a lobbyist and former state legislator who is
campaign manager for the drug initiative that backers hope to get on the
statewide ballot in November 2002.

"What we have found is not mere monitoring or discussion of our initiative,
but a range of clearly wrong and unethical campaigning activities."

A Taft spokesman yesterday defended the administration's actions, calling
the ballot initiative "a de facto decriminalization of drugs."

Documents obtained by Orlett seem to show an orchestrated effort by top
officials in the Taft administration, including Chief of Staff Brian K.
Hicks; Hope Taft, the governor's wife; and Luceille Fleming, director of
the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, to block the issue
from getting to the ballot or defeat it if it does.

There has also been consideration of putting together a competing
drug-reform plan for submission to the legislature, documents show.

"The first line and best possible defense against the proposed
Constitutional amendment is to keep it off the ballot," Fleming wrote in a
Sept. 13 memo to Taft aide Greg Moody.

Hope Taft, a longtime campaigner against drug and alcohol abuse, was among
those who attended a Nov. 7 meeting to discuss opposing the drug
initiative. The meeting was held in the governor's offices on the 30th
floor of the Riffe Center.

Administration officials were apparently aware of the fine line they walk
in challenging the issue.

"We need to find out . . . what we can and can't do, what the trigger is
that we can't go past once it becomes more than an issue," said Ann Husted,
Taft's special events coordinator and a longtime Republican political

The group discussed media events at which Taft will speak out against the
amendment and point to the value of the "hammer of incarceration." That
strategy, which has been employed in Florida, involves using arguments that
the amendment would weaken prosecution of "date-rape drugs," having the
governor lobby legislators and mayors, and enlisting the support of police
and sheriffs.

One of the documents shows the Taft administration clearly wanted to keep
hands off fund-raising in fighting the drug issue, suggesting it should be
handled through the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services or
with the help of Andy Futey, a Taft appointee to the Ohio Lottery Commission.

"The governor is not for this (proposal)," Taft spokesman Joe Andrews said
yesterday. "He's spoken with experts and drug court officials and will
oppose it. He thinks it's a de facto decriminalization of drugs. He's
concerned about bringing the failed California drug experiment to Ohio."

Andrews said the governor and his staff have done nothing improper because
the issue has not been certified to appear on the ballot.

"People from out of state are coming in and going against the governor's
policies," Andrews said. "He feels he has a right to defend them."

Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, said
Ohio campaign-finance laws have not been triggered because the issue is not
on the ballot.

Despite the opposition, it appears the issue will move forward.

Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery yesterday tentatively approved
the ballot language for the issue after reviewing it for 10 weeks. The
issue will now be sent to the Franklin County Board of Elections to certify
that the 100 signatures accompanying the proposal are from registered voters.

Backers of the initiative must then begin the task of gathering 335,422
valid signatures from at least 44 counties to put the issue before voters
next year.

The initiative would provide treatment instead of jail time for first- or
second-time, nonviolent drug-possession offenders. Those convicted of
trafficking, manufacturing or selling drugs, or drunken driving would be
ineligible for the program.

The program would require annual state funding of $38 million. However,
backers claim the price tag of treatment -- about $3,500 per year -- is
less costly than incarceration, roughly $22,000 annually.

Treatment programs would last up to 18 months. Those who drop out of
treatment would go to jail.

The Campaign for New Drug Policies, a California group that backed
Proposition 36, a similar amendment in that state, is also supporting
ballot issues in Florida and Michigan next year.

The group is backed by Peter B. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance in
Cleveland and a major Democratic campaign contributor; billionaire
financier/philanthropist George Soros; and John Spurling, founder of the
University of Phoenix.

Dave Fratello, national campaign director, said the reaction of Ohio
officials is similar to what happened in other states.

"The public is way ahead of the politicians on this issue," he said. "It's
no surprise to see the old guard fight a change this dramatic in drug policy.

"What's new is the arrogance and the willingness to illegally use state
resources and employees to assemble and pursue a campaign."

Newshawk: Deodandum
Pubdate: Fri, 14 Dec 2001
Source: Columbus Dispatch (OH)
Copyright: 2001 The Columbus Dispatch
Contact: letters@dispatch.com
Website: http://www.dispatch.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/93
Author: Alan Johnson