Ohio Senate Adopts Harsher Penalties For Illegal Fentanyl Possession

Mar 30, 2017

The Senate has upped the penalties for possessing fentanyl, the deadly and powerful synthetic painkiller that’s been turning up in heroin in Ohio. Debate on what may seem like a simple way to fight the fentanyl problem got complex and heated.

Fentanyl is three times more powerful than cyanide, and can kill anyone who ingests it whether alone or added to heroin. In the last two years for which there’s data, fentanyl-related deaths in Ohio soared from 84 to more than 1,100. 

Sen. Frank LaRose, a Hudson Republican, said targeting the traffickers in fentanyl with up to eight more years in prison is a way to stem that rising tide.

“These are people who have earned a living, earned a profit in this illicit trade. And they know for a fact that some of their clientele are going to die as a result of the poison that they’re selling. Those people belong in prison for a long time.”

​What about treatment?

LaRose acknowledged the bill doesn’t put more money toward drug treatment, saying that’s not its function.

But some Democrats said the idea behind this proposal is very familiar.

Sen. Michael Skindell, a Lakewood Democrat, said it reflects the same strategies that have embodied the war on drugs for the past 30 years.

“The failed strategies of long sentences, mandatory minimums, sending to prison low-level users and dealers who are caught in a cycle of addiction, who have a medical illness, and sentencing based on aggregate weight as opposed to pure weight,” Skindell said.

Lessons learned from past drug wars

Skindell and Cincinnati Democratic Sen. Cecil Thomas argued what’s really needed is more money for treatment, since many traffickers are selling simply to support their own habits. Those comments riled Republicans, who said that what the bill doesn’t do is no reason to vote against it. Sen. Cliff Hite of Findlay admitted there’s a need for more treatment and beds and money toward fighting addiction.

But he added, “This a little bit of a dent in saving lives. A dent. It’s not the answer. I agree with everybody. But if we don’t vote on this bill, we’re saying it’s OK for people to kill people in this state. And there’s no other way of looking at it. No other way.”

'Diluted ethics'

And Sen. Dave Burke, a Marysville Republican who’s also a pharmacist, said discussions about whether this bill is enough to solve the heroin crisis in Ohio miss the point.

“Three table-salt grains of fentanyl will kill you. And if you think that’s OK, then vote no on the bill, because not only is the drug being diluted, apparently so are your ethics when it comes to fighting this issue,” Burke said.

What works?

But Thomas, a former police officer, said getting tough on drugs without increasing investment in treatment will continue to just bring more overcrowding and spending in the prison system.

“We’re talking about more sentencing, adding more beds to the penitentiary and putting much more weight on our budget,” Thomas said. “So I hear your passion, senator, and I know exactly what you’re attempting to do. But I’ve done this and I know that all you’re doing it repeating what we did back in the 70s and 80s.”

While the measure does include mandatory sentencing guidelines, it also has a provision that allows judges to sentence traffickers caught with smaller amounts to alternative options. The bill passed by a four-to-one margin, with six Democrats voting against it. It now goes on to the House.