Silly season

Another Draconian drug law will not slow Ohio’s opioid epidemic; don’t waste time on political symbolism


Crime bills tend to bring out the demagogue in politicians. That’s especially true in an election year, when lawmakers typically introduce a number of preposterous bills, regardless of their consequences or even whether they have a chance to pass.

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Jim Butler (R., Oakwood) would authorize murder charges and lifetime prison sentences for sellers of illicit drugs that result in fatal overdoses. This ridiculous proposal deserves a prompt demise.

In proposing his measure, Mr. Butler noted the sharp increase in drug overdose deaths in Ohio, especially those caused by heroin and illicit prescription drug use. Whether House Bill 508 is an election-year grab or represents Mr. Butler’s principled conviction, it is an impractical, Draconian, and ineffective measure that would do nothing to ease Ohio’s heroin and opioid epidemic.

The bill permits a seller of illegal drugs to a person under 18 years old who suffers a fatal overdose to be charged with aggravated murder and receive a sentence of life in prison without parole. If the victim is an adult, the seller or dealer could still be charged with murder and get a life sentence. The penalties would apply not only to a major drug dealer, but also to an addict unloading a small quantity of drugs on a friend or acquaintance.

Whether the law could survive a court challenge is unclear. In any event, it ignores the many and complex causes of drug overdoses, and the central importance of intent in establishing an appropriate sentence.

Such harsh penalties might be justified if the seller or dealer had reason to believe that injecting the drug would result in death, or if the seller laced the drug with a substance he or she knew could be fatal. That’s not the case, however, in most fatal overdoses.

In effect, illicit drug users are, as Lucas County’s chief toxicologist, Dr. Robert Forney, put it, practicing pharmacy without a license. People can overdose on heroin for many reasons — none of which may be known to the seller or even user.

Taking NyQuil, for instance, after injecting heroin could become lethal, depending on how the medication’s antihistamines reacted with the heroin. More commonly, an addict could overdose if his or her tolerance for the drug had dropped during a period of abstinence.

Dealing drugs is a serious crime, and suitable laws for charging a seller are on the books. Murder charges would be appropriate only in extremely rare or unusual circumstances.

Instead, this bill represents the unreasonable one-size-fits-all justice that helped create a U.S. prison system that now holds 25 percent of the world’s inmates and costs Ohio $1.5 billion a year.

Get-tough measures such as mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws are now denounced by law enforcement officials around the country, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. Apparently, Representative Butler has learned nothing from the failures of the past 30 years.

By contrast, his fellow Republican lawmakers have introduced a reasonable package of bills aimed at Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic, including measures to expand treatment and educate students about opioid abuse. Mr. Butler would better serve his constituents — and the state — by supporting some of those proposals than by pushing another ineffective and Draconian crime bill.