Columbus, Ohio - A new state law signed last week by Ohio Governor John Kasich takes aim at a dangerous synthetic opioid that has been fueling a massive increase in overdose deaths statewide.

The law, which goes into effect October 31, will increase penalties for possessing fentanyl or fentanyl-related compounds.

Tuscarawas County Assistant Prosecutor Mike Ernest explained that state law currently lists fentanyl as a Schedule II controlled substance because until recent years the drug was used primarily for legitimate pharmaceutical purposes. 

“Then, it changed entirely from this painkiller that was used to legitimate purposes to a substance that was being substituted for heroin that never had any type of legitimate purpose. It was often coming from China. It wasn’t that someone had gotten it from their pharmacist and abused it. It was never in legitimate channels to begin with,” Ernest said.

As a result, legislators decided to pull fentanyl from the schedule of controlled substances and treat it similarly to heroin, according to Ernest.

“The penalties aren’t drastically different. Even if you possessed fentanyl before in certain quantities, it would elevate to mandatory prison time at times,” Ernest explained. “It now appears to be a lower quantity could trigger a mandatory prison sentence.”

The new law calls for additional mandatory prison terms of 3 to 8 years for drug possession or drug trafficking convictions that involve fentanyl or a fentanyl-related compound.

Ernest noted that because of the way the drug has been classified up to this point, someone possessing or trafficking fentanyl could potentially face a lighter sentence than someone possessing or trafficking heroin.

“Before, you would have been better off if you were somebody dealing in drugs or in possessing it, you would have been treated more harshly if you had heroin than fentanyl,” Ernest explained.

While Ernest said he thinks the new law is great, he noted that it probably would have had a bigger impact in Tuscarawas County if it had been passed two or three years ago.

“What we see now are people abusing other drugs to a much larger extent than opioids. It is still certainly a problem that exists, and, to some extent, the drug problems in Tuscarawas County have not subsided. It’s really just changed,” he said. “Our county sees a much bigger problem with methamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoids than what we’re seeing right now with fentanyl-related problems.”

Stacey Carmany, TuscoTV

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