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Ohio bill elevates penalties for fentanyl and heroin dealing—and human trafficking too

A gavel in front of books and the scales of justice
A gavel in front of books and the scales of justice

Testimony continued Wednesday on a Republican-backed bill that boosts the penalties for human and drug trafficking, the fourth hearing held on the piece of legislation.

House Bill 230, introduced by GOP Reps. Cindy Abrams (R-Harrison) and D.J. Swearingen (R-Huron), would recategorize the felony classifications for trafficking certain amounts of drugs—such as cocaine, fentanyl, or heroin. Harsher sentences come with that reclassification.

The classifications and sentences for fentanyl or its modifications are the ones that increase the most. Trafficking less than one gram of fentanyl would go from a fifth-degree felony to a second-degree felony.

Among other changes, it also creates a new offense: participating in an organization for trafficking in persons, which is classified as a first-degree felony in the bill.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction would likely see its incarceration costs rise statewide if HB 230 passes and becomes law, according to an Ohio Legislative Service Commission fiscal analysis of the bill.

Proponents, opponents see different solutions to crisis

Clocking in at just under two hours, the Wednesday hearing was not the longest yet for HB 230.

State and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are championing the proposal. Across two hearings—and more than four hours—worth of proponent testimony, some have said it gives them more ability to punish the people selling drugs.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Melissa Powers wrote her office has “long recognized the need for treatment rather than punishment for drug addicts.”

“But for too long, we have been fighting this battle with one hand tied behind our backs,” Powers wrote in her written testimony. “Ohio prosecutors have not had the tools to aggressively prosecute those who seek to take advantage of people struggling with addiction.”

Three anti-fentanyl advocacy organizations are also backing the bill. All of them are founded or led by family members of a loved one who died from an overdose that involved the synthetic opioid.

Opponents, including ACLU of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels, argued it would be better for Ohio to approach drugs and addiction differently. This, he said, would do little to address the state’s addiction crisis and instead overpopulate its prisons.

“All this time, energy and money devoted to HB 230 distracts from what we know works with regard to drug addiction, that is properly addressing the demand side of this equation,” Daniels said during his testimony.

It could also disproportionately hurt Ohio’s communities of color, Daniels said.

The Homeland Security Committee will break for at least two weeks, chair Rep. Haraz Ghanbari (R-Perrysburg) said, and reconvene later this year to further “vet” HB 230. The legislative text is available here.

Sarah Donaldson covers government, policy, politics and elections for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. Contact her at sdonaldson@statehousenews.org.