Drug investigators welcome revised high court ruling

In the wake of a rare ruling reversal Monday, local officials are breathing a sigh of relief.

On Monday, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned its own December ruling from a case concerning the purity of cocaine found on a person and how that related to the degree of charges imposed by the state. Cocaine mixed with any fillers will now be charged based solely on weight instead of on purity.

“I’m glad it’s been fixed the right way,” said Washington County Sheriff’s Lt. Josh Staats who serves on the joint Washington Morgan Noble Major Crimes Task Force. “(The Ohio Supreme Court’s) previous ruling already affected arrests for trafficking we made in Belpre in reducing charges from a first-degree felony to a fifth-degree felony.”

The case, Ohio vs. Gonzalez, stemmed from a 2012 drug sting in northwest Ohio which led to the conviction of Rafael Gonzalez for buying more than 100 grams of cocaine from an undercover informant. Gonzalez was originally sentenced to 11 years in prison for the crime.

But in December the case was first heard by Ohio’s highest court on the grounds that an ambiguity in the law defining cocaine didn’t allow for mixtures intended for distribution to result in charges at the same level as a pure amount of heroin of the same weight.

“It affects not only the charging but also the bond argument,” explained Staats. “And the fallout wasn’t just limited to cocaine. With the decision in December, defense could and has argued the purity of any drug. They did that in (Belpre resident) Wes Lincoln’s (recent) case for heroin.”

Since the December ruling, Former Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger and Former Justice Paul Pfiefer have retired and the Wood County Prosecutor’s Office asked the court to reconsider its previous decision.

The court ruled Monday that the amount of cocaine clearly encompasses the whole compound or preparation of cocaine, including fillers that are a part of the usable drug.

“This is consistent with the nature of the cocaine used illegally in the United States, which is a compound of several ingredients,” reads the majority opinion. “Powder cocaine is typically ‘cut’ or diluted by adding one or more adulterants. Importantly, the fillers or adulterants that are part of powder cocaine are not intended to be removed before consumption.”

In essence, if the dealer of cocaine intends to sell 100 grams of end-product to his or her consumers, then that 100 grams is what the dealer will be charged with even if the ratio of purity is 1 gram of cocaine to 99 grams of filler.

“Nothing is pure because that’s how dealers make their money,” said Staats. “We just got in heroin that was cut with tramadol and another (case) before that was confirmed to contain carfentanil. That’s why people are overdosing, because they don’t realize what else is in their drugs.”

Typical fillers for cocaine across Ohio include: Lidocaine, procaine, baby laxatives or powder and levamisole, which is a livestock dewormer.

“Cocaine use occasionally spikes around here but really the importance of this case is that you don’t take the impurities out when you use it so it’s more realistic to count the entire cocaine weight with the charge because that’s what the transaction indicates you paid for,” said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

The new ruling was not a unanimous decision, though.

Justice William M. O’Neill and Justice Sharon L. Kennedy dissented from the majority opinion.

“Rightly or wrongly, the general assembly used the specific language ‘grams of cocaine’ without any qualifiers…it is not the role of the courts to establish legislative policies or second-guess the general assembly’s policy choices,” wrote Kennedy. “Today, the majority turns its back on these treasured principles of our limited role in government to legislate from the bench.”

O’Neill added in his dissent that “baby formula, talcum powder and baking soda” mixed with cocaine and cocaine in its pure form “does not pose the same risk to the public’s health and safety.”

“To be clear, today’s majority opinion does a major disservice to the English language to arrive at a desired result,” wrote O’Neill. “From this date forward, the statute in question will be read to mean that 2.99 grams of baby powder will now be considered to be 3 grams of cocaine if there is even a scintilla of the controlled substance found in the ‘mixture.’ Good enough for government work? I think not.”

At a glance

¯ The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Monday that cocaine mixed with any fillers will be charged based solely on weight instead of on purity.

¯ Washington County officials say this ruling is consistent with how drugs are sold in the Mid-Ohio Valley.

Source: Times research.