The Senate has upped the penalties for possessing fentanyl, the deadly and powerful synthetic painkiller that’s been turning up in heroin in Ohio. But the 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 1,155. Sen. Frank LaRose (R-Hudson) 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, they know for a fact that some of their clientele are going to die as a result of the poison that they’re selling,” LaRose said. “Those people belong in prison for a long time.” LaRose noted the bill doesn’t put more money toward drug treatment, saying that’s not its function.
But some Democrats say the idea behind this proposal is very familiar. Sen. Michael Skindell (D-Lakewood) said the bill reflects the same strategies that have embodied the war on drugs for the past thirty 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.
Skindell and Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) 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 (R-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," Hite said. "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.”
And Sen. Dave Burke (D-Marysville), who’s also a pharmacist, said discussions about whether this bill is enough to really solve the heroin crisis in Ohio miss the point. “Three tablesalt 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.
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 is 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.