Ohio Supreme Court justices rarely change their minds about the opinions they write. But they did earlier this week, and their reversal appears warranted.
In December, the court had issued a 4-to-3 ruling in a drug case that questioned whether prosecutors should be allowed to include the filler substances often used to “cut” cocaine when determining criminal charges.
Generally speaking, the larger the quantity of cocaine involved, the more severe the charge and the longer the sentence an offender faces.
But the court found that purity, not quantity, should matter most, after interpreting that Ohio law, as written, requires a charge to be based only on the amount of pure cocaine, not any additives.
The Wood County Prosecutor’s Office challenged the ruling, saying it would have the effect of delaying or shortening sentences for suspects caught with cocaine.
No question, it would add significant costs to cocaine prosecutions. Counties rely on free testing by state crime labs in drug cases, but none of the labs is certified to do purity tests on cocaine. Independent labs are available to analyze cocaine, but charge for testing. Additional costs could result if a case went to trial and a lab expert was needed to testify.
Hancock County Prosecutor Phil Riegle said Monday the county had already spent about $6,500 to have cocaine in two cases tested since the high court’s December ruling. Numerous pending cocaine cases could raise testing costs even more.
Lawmakers had already started the process of rewriting the cocaine statute to clarify the language, but on Monday, the court reversed the earlier finding.
“That’s major,” Riegle said after learning of the 4-2 decision, which means cocaine charges will again be based on the gross weight of cocaine and additives.
Major may be an understatement.
Pure cocaine is often cut with other substances in order to change or intensify the effects of the drug. Sometimes the fillers are harmless and legal, but the substances added can also be as harmful as the cocaine itself.
Whether someone sells or possesses a gram of cocaine or a kilo, it only makes sense they should be charged based on the bulk amount. Doing otherwise would only open the door to even more drug activity at a time when Ohio can least handle it.
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