Relapse Reduction Act (SB25)

Ohio Bill Aims to “Move the State Forward” in the Fight Against The Opioid Epidemic

Last fall the Senate passed the Relapse Reduction Act (SB25). The bill aims to protect patients suffering from substance abuse. It does this by enhancing penalties for people selling drugs within 500 feet of rehab facilities. Republican Senator Theresa Garvone is the bill’s author. She claims that SB25 helps addicts by coming “down harder on drug dealers who try to exploit these vulnerable people.” Senator Garvone also claims that this bill will  “move Ohio forward in the fight against the opioid epidemic.” 

While acknowledging its altruistic objective, many contend that the bill’s good intentions are lost in its application. The legislation casts a wide net, allowing individuals to receive charges for a crime they likely didn’t even know they were committing. 

One of the bill’s critics is Niki Clum from the Office of the Ohio Public Defender’s Office. During testimony last week to the House Criminal Justice Committee, she took issue with the legislation’s broad language, noting that it glosses over an important factor of criminal law – intent. 

Clum asserted that SB25 needs to clarify intent as someone “knowingly” committing a crime – as it’s defined in more than 140 other offenses in the Ohio Revised Code. She says “a person must know they are trafficking near an addiction service provider for this bill to be in anyway effective. An individual cannot be deterred from doing something they don’t know they are doing.”

During the most recent House Criminal Justice Committee hearing, a small compromise was reached.  The requirement for intent has shifted from the broad definition of “recklessly” to a more narrowly defined version of “knows or should know.”

Her testimony also highlighted an unintended consequence that would allow minorities to be disproportionately affected. Urban areas are denser and closer together. Both addiction service providers and minority populations tend to be located in these urban areas. By doing this, SB25 is segregating crime, doling out stiffer penalties based solely on someone’s zip code.   

Clum is not alone in her beliefs. Blaise Katter, public policy chair for The Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has called these location based charges “the least effective way to target the predatory behavior this bill is designed to combat.”

Other critics say the bill is based on outdated policy. When it was being considered in the Senate, ACLU Ohio lobbyist Gary Daniels explained how SB25 exacerbates the failed war on drugs by “doubling down on this failed status quo” and by treating “a health problem entirely through cops, courts, and cages.”

Legislators would be remiss not to take note of Ohio’s track record on drugs and mass incarceration. Ohio houses more than 40,000 prisoners at a cost of more than $30,000 a year. In addition, 1 out of 3 formerly incarcerated individuals will return to prison.  Drugs are at the center of Ohio’s prison problem – as they are the number two reason people get locked up. Despite the state’s heavy handed punishment, we still have one of the highest overdose rates in the country. 

Ohio’s drug and recidivism rates suggest that more legislation and more penalties alone can’t heal addicts or prevent drug traffickers. As Daniels noted in his testimony, “as long as there are addicts, there will always be people available to sell them their next high no matter how harsh the punishment.”

Although the legislation is backed predominantly by Republicans, there is growing pushback against SB25 from the right. The Ohio chapter of the ultra-conservative organization, Americans for Prosperity, has even come out against the bill. Director Micah Derry criticizes SB25’s approach of turning the victims of drug abuse into criminals, saying, “policymakers should not be creating sweeping enhanced penalties, especially on people that are often struggling with addiction themselves.”  

About the author:

Image courtesy of Courtney Drenan

Courtney Drenan is a freelance writer whose passion for criminal justice reform led her into a career of politics. Previously, she worked at Fox News in New York City as a breaking news writer and associate producer where she covered everything from Covid-19 lockdowns to Black Lives Matter protests.