Could this law choke off heroin supply?

Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-28 06:00:07-05

COLUMBUS — Robin Barton recalls how she felt when her daughter was addicted to heroin.

Gripped by constant fear, Barton would pace around her bed every night worried about her daughter’s whereabouts. In the mornings, she would pray that her daughter did not die from an overdose.

Barton’s daughter had been addicted to various substances, but heroin was the worst, Barton said.

There were days her daughter would be sick while on heroin and days she would be sick without it. The addiction took her daughter to the “worst streets” alone to get the drug.

On one occasion, Barton said, her daughter was sexually assaulted by a dealer and thrown from his truck.

“The heroin she had in her hand dropped into a water puddle as she fell to the street,” Barton said. “She quickly grabbed it up and scraped what she could use from it before crawling for help.”

Barton, 57, now stands in front of Ohio lawmakers as a mother of a recovering addict, recounting her experience.

In 2014, about 1,177 people in Ohio died from heroin overdoses, according to a preliminary overdose report by the Ohio Department of Health. Heroin-related deaths accounted for almost half of unintentional drug overdose deaths in the state that year.

To help mothers like Barton and those addicted to heroin, lawmakers are considering a bill that would reduce the amount of heroin needed for someone to be considered a major drug offender under Ohio law.

Under current law, a person who traffics or possesses between 50 and 250 grams of heroin commits a felony that has a prison term of three to 11 years.

If the amount of heroin involved were 250 grams or more, the offender would be labeled as a major drug offender, which is a felony that the court must impose a maximum prison term of 11 years.

But if this bill becomes law, a person who traffics or possesses 100 grams of heroin would be considered a major drug offender, which includes a maximum prison sentence of 11 years if convicted.

In 2014, the number of unintentional drug overdose deaths in Hamilton County was 242.

Rep. Jonathan Dever, R-Madeira, said the purpose of the bill is to choke off the supply of heroin in the state and create consistency between cocaine and heroin laws. Dever is one of the sponsors of the bill.

“The idea is to give law enforcement the ability to charge folks who are carrying around a lot of heroin the same way they charge people who carry a lot of crack cocaine and powder cocaine,” Dever said.

Gary Daniels, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said his organization is skeptical that the bill would improve current efforts against the state’s heroin problem.

“For decades now, the response by legislators, government and law enforcement to almost all drug problems has been to arrest, convict and incarcerate,” Daniels said in his testimony. “Yet, by any objective measure, the so-called War on Drugs is a failure.”

Increasing felony levels and sanctions will not fix the heroin problem, but it will increase the prison population, said Kari Bloom, a legislative liaison for the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.

“Addiction is a disease that requires medical attention,” Bloom said. “If we take the heroin dealers off the street but do not address the addiction that drives their customers, they will simply move on to the next available drug that feeds their addiction.”

But Dever said bills focused on treatment are already going through the legislature.

“We have to attack it from different angles,” Dever said. “We have to give law enforcement the tools that they need to get the major suppliers off the streets. We don’t have that right now.”  

Brad Winall, a lieutenant with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, said the bill would not affect heroin addicts if it becomes law.

Winall, who is also the commander of the regional narcotics unit in Cincinnati, added that he has never arrested an addict that possessed 100 grams of heroin, based on his 28 years of drug law enforcement experience.

The bill, which cleared the House last year, received its third hearing on Wednesday.

Joshua Lim is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at  or follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaLim93.