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Ohio’s Drug Laws: An Overview of Legal Medications and Substances

Ohio faces a critical battle against drug abuse, a challenge marked by sobering statistics and stringent legal measures. In recent years, Ohio has been at the epicenter of the opioid crisis, which has dramatically shaped its legal landscape. According to the Ohio Department of Health, the state witnessed over 4,000 drug overdose deaths in 2020 alone, thus showing a dire public health emergency. The opioid epidemic has led to a series of legislative reforms aimed at curbing drug abuse while also enhancing support and treatment options for addiction.

In response to these challenges, Ohio has enacted an innovative approach to drug rehabilitation in its drug court programs. According to a study by Case Western Reserve University, participants in Ohio’s drug court programs are significantly less likely to reoffend, showing a recidivism rate of only 13% compared to 25% for similar populations not in the program. Ohio has also implemented aggressive legislative measures. Under Ohio Revised Code Section 2925.11, possession of controlled substances will result in significant legal repercussions, with penalties increasing based on the quantity and type of drug involved 

These legislative responses reflect a dual commitment to law enforcement and public health, aiming to reduce both drug supply and demand. As Ohio continues to navigate the complexities of drug control, these laws play a pivotal role in shaping the state’s strategy against the drug epidemic.

Which Medications or Substances are Legal in Ohio?

The medications which are legal and regulated in Ohio fall into four main categories: prescription drugs, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, medical marijuana and alcohol.

1. Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs are legal in Ohio and require a valid prescription from a licensed healthcare provider. These medications are regulated to ensure their safe and appropriate use. Ohio’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), known as the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System (OARRS), was established to track the dispensing and personal furnishing of controlled prescription drugs to patients, OARRS helps prevent prescription drug abuse and diversion. Common prescription medications in Ohio include:

  • Pain relievers: Examples include opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, as well as non-opioid medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and muscle relaxants.
  • Antidepressants: Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety disorders.
  • Antihypertensives: Medications used to treat high blood pressure, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors), beta-blockers, and diuretics.
  • Antibiotics: Medications prescribed to treat bacterial infections, including penicillin, cephalosporins, and fluoroquinolones.
  • Antidiabetic drugs: Medications used to manage diabetes, including insulin and oral hypoglycemic agents.
  • Anticonvulsants: Medications prescribed to control seizures and manage epilepsy, such as carbamazepine, phenytoin, and valproic acid.

Note that some of these medications are illegal unless prescribed by a specialist. According to the State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy, OARRS is consulted before prescribing or dispensing opioids and benzodiazepines, among other substances, to provide comprehensive information on a patient’s prescription history.

2. Over-the-counter (OTC) Medications

OTC medications are available without a prescription and can be purchased directly from pharmacies, grocery stores, and other retail outlets. Common OTC medications in Ohio include:

  • Pain relievers: Non-prescription analgesics like acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (e.g., Advil) and naproxen (e.g., Aleve).
  • Cold and flu remedies: Medications to relieve symptoms of the common cold, such as cough suppressants, decongestants, antihistamines, and expectorants.
  • Allergy medications: Antihistamines, both sedating and non-sedating, to manage allergies and hay fever symptoms.
  • Acid reflux and heartburn medications: Antacids, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are used to alleviate symptoms of acid reflux and heartburn.
  • Topical creams and ointments: OTC topical medications for pain relief, skin conditions, and minor injuries.

3. Medical Marijuana

Ohio has legalized medical marijuana for individuals with qualifying medical conditions. Registered patients with a recommendation from a certified healthcare provider can legally obtain and use medical marijuana. The Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program oversees the regulation and licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries, cultivators, and processors. As of 2021, the State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy reports that there are over 155,000 registered medical marijuana patients in Ohio. This statistic shows the growing acceptance and utilization of medical marijuana as a therapeutic option within the state.

4. Alcohol

Alcohol is considered legal in Ohio, however it is  regulated through several laws aimed at controlling the sale, consumption, and distribution of alcoholic beverages within the state. These laws are designed to promote safety and public health while accommodating responsible drinking.

What is the Legal Drinking Age and Sales?

In Ohio, the legal drinking age is 21 years old, in line with federal law. Under Ohio Revised Code Section 4301.22, it is illegal to provide alcohol to anyone under the age of 21. Additionally, Ohio permits alcohol sales from licensed premises from 5:30 AM until 1:00 AM Monday through Saturday, and from 11:00 AM until midnight on Sundays, with special permits allowing extended hours.

Additionally, Ohio takes a strong stance against drinking and driving. According to the Ohio Legislature and the Ohio Revised Code Section 4511.19, operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs (OVI) is prohibited, and the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit is .08% for drivers over 21. For drivers under 21, the limit is .02%. Penalties for OVI offenses can include fines, license suspension, and even jail time, depending on the severity and number of repeat offenses.

According to the Ohio Department of Public Safety, there were approximately 13,000 OVI enforcement stops in 2020, showing the prevalence of alcohol consumption on Ohio roads. The Ohio Department of Health reports indicate that about 19% of adult Ohioans engage in binge drinking, slightly below the national average.

Which Substances are Illegal in Ohio?

Illegal substances in ohio

The substances that are illegal in Ohio are classified as controlled substances and fall into different schedules based on their potential for abuse, medical use, and dependence liability. 

What is a Schedule I Controlled Substance?

Schedule I controlled substances, as defined by both federal and state law, are categorized based on their high potential for abuse and lack of recognized medical use in the United States. These substances are subject to the strictest regulations due to their significant risk of addiction and absence of safe usage under medical supervision. Schedule I controlled substances are those that have been determined to have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. In Ohio, as in the rest of the U.S., this category includes drugs such as:

  • Heroin: An opiate with no accepted medical use and a high potential for addiction.
  • LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide): A hallucinogen that is illegal under current laws.
  • MDMA (Ecstasy): Known for its psychoactive properties and potential for abuse.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, in 2021, there were significant law enforcement actions involving Schedule I substances. For instance, heroin-related offenses constituted approximately 20% of all drug violation arrests. This statistic highlights the ongoing challenge that Schedule I substances pose to public health and law enforcement agencies in Ohio.

Under the Ohio Revised Code Section 2925.11, possession of any Schedule I substance without authorization is illegal and can lead to severe penalties, including imprisonment and fines. The code specifies that these substances, due to their dangerous nature, are regulated very strictly to prevent abuse and trafficking.

What is a Schedule II Controlled Substance?

Schedule II controlled substances are defined by their high potential for abuse, which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. However, unlike Schedule I drugs, these substances have accepted medical uses in the United States but require strict regulatory control to mitigate the risks associated with their use. Schedule II drugs are characterized by their high potential for abuse but are distinguished from Schedule I drugs by their recognized medical uses under severe restrictions. In Ohio, as in other states, this category includes:

  • Opioids: Such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), fentanyl, and morphine, which are commonly prescribed for pain management.
  • Stimulants: Including amphetamine (used in ADHD medications like Adderall), methamphetamine, and methylphenidate (Ritalin), prescribed primarily for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain sleep disorders.
  • Some Barbiturates: Such as secobarbital and pentobarbital, used in limited medical contexts such as severe insomnia or to induce anesthesia.

The Ohio Board of Pharmacy reported in their 2021 review that prescriptions for Schedule II opioids have shown a downward trend thanks to stringent prescribing guidelines and increased awareness of the risks of opioid addiction. However, these drugs still represent a significant portion of prescription abuse cases, highlighting the ongoing need for careful regulation and monitoring.

According to the Ohio Revised Code Section 3719.41, which classifies controlled substances into various schedules, Schedule II drugs require tight control, prescribing practices, and tracking to prevent misuse. The state mandates that healthcare providers who prescribe these medications must follow strict guidelines, including checking the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System (OARRS) to track patient prescriptions and prevent doctor shopping.

What is a Schedule III Controlled Substance?

Schedule III controlled substances are categorized as having a lower potential for abuse compared to Schedule I and II substances, but still pose a risk of moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence. These substances are permitted for medical use and are subject to regulatory oversight to prevent misuse. Schedule III drugs are notable for their recognized medical uses and lower abuse potential relative to substances in Schedules I and II. Examples of Schedule III substances include:

  • Anabolic Steroids: Used medically to promote bone growth and appetite, to induce male puberty, and to treat chronic wasting conditions like cancer and AIDS.
  • Certain Stimulants and Depressants: These have moderate abuse potential. This category includes drugs such as benzphetamine,  ketamine which has applications in anesthesia, and certain formulations of barbiturates that are not classified as Schedule II.

In Ohio, the monitoring of Schedule III drugs is less intensive than that for Schedule I or II drugs, reflecting their lower potential for abuse. However, the Ohio Board of Pharmacy tracks all prescriptions for these substances through the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System (OARRS) to prevent misuse and ensure proper medical use.

Under the Ohio Revised Code Section 3719.41, Schedule III substances are regulated to ensure that they are prescribed and dispensed responsibly. Prescribers must adhere to specific regulatory requirements, including maintaining accurate records and prescribing these drugs only for legitimate medical needs.

What is a Schedule IV Controlled Substance?

Schedule IV controlled substances are classified as having a lower potential for abuse compared to Schedule III substances but can still lead to limited physical or psychological dependence. These substances have accepted medical uses and are regulated to ensure they are prescribed responsibly to minimize abuse and dependency risks. Here’s a closer examination of Schedule IV substances:

Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs primarily used for treating anxiety, insomnia, and a range of other neurological conditions. Examples of benzodiazepines classified as Schedule IV drugs include:

  • Diazepam (Valium): Often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, muscle spasms, and sometimes used to manage withdrawal symptoms from alcohol dependence.
  • Alprazolam (Xanax): Commonly used for the short-term management of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
  • Lorazepam (Ativan): Used in the treatment of anxiety disorders and as a sedative before medical procedures.

These medications are controlled due to their potential for abuse and dependency, especially with long-term use. In addition to benzodiazepines, Schedule IV also includes several sleep aids and sedatives, which are prescribed to help manage sleep disorders such as insomnia. Examples include:

  • Zolpidem (Ambien): A sedative primarily used to treat trouble sleeping by helping patients fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta): Helps treat insomnia by inducing sleep and improving sleep maintenance.
  • Triazolam (Halcion): Typically used for short-term treatment of severe insomnia, helping patients fall asleep quicker.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), benzodiazepines were among the most prescribed psychotherapeutic drugs in the U.S., showing the widespread clinical use but also pointing to a need for careful prescription management to prevent abuse.

The Ohio Revised Code Section 3719.41 clearly defines the scheduling of controlled substances, including the categorization of various benzodiazepines and sedatives under Schedule IV. These regulations are intended to strike a balance between ensuring access to necessary medications and mitigating the risk of abuse.

What is a Schedule V Controlled Substance?

Schedule V controlled substances are classified as having the lowest potential for abuse relative to the substances in the other schedules, yet they are still regulated due to their accepted medical uses and potential for limited physical or psychological dependence. These substances often contain limited quantities of certain narcotics. Here’s an expanded overview of Schedule V substances:

  • Cough Suppressants Containing Codeine: These include medications like Robitussin AC, which contains a low concentration of codeine. It is prescribed to suppress severe coughing and is regulated to prevent misuse, as codeine can be addictive.
  • Antidiarrheal Medications Containing Small Amounts of Opioids: An example is Lomotil, which contains diphenoxylate, a mild opioid, and atropine to discourage overuse. It is used to treat diarrhea by slowing the movement of the intestines.

These medications are typically less strictly regulated than those in higher schedules but still require careful monitoring due to their narcotic content. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Schedule V drugs are considered to have a lower risk of dependency and are crucial for certain medical treatments.

In Ohio, as in other states, the classification and regulation of controlled substances, including Schedule V drugs, follow the guidelines set by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. These substances are controlled under the Ohio Revised Code Section 3719.41, which provides the legal framework for their prescription and distribution.

What are the Penalties and Consequences of Drug Offenses in Ohio?

penalty for drug offenses in ohio

The penalties and consequences for drug offenses in Ohio vary depending on several factors, including the type and quantity of the controlled substance involved, the intent (possession, trafficking, manufacturing, or distribution), and the offender’s prior criminal history. Below are details about 4 of the penalties for Ohio’s drug offenses:

1. Possession of Controlled Substances

  • Misdemeanor Possession: The possession of small amounts of controlled substances, typically for personal use, is often charged as a misdemeanor offense. Penalties include up to 180 days in jail and fines up to $1,000.
  • Felony Possession: Possession of larger quantities or certain types of controlled substances can result in felony charges. The severity of the felony charge depends on factors such as the schedule and quantity of the drug. Penalties can range from up to one year in prison for a fifth-degree felony to several years of imprisonment for higher-degree felonies.

2. Drug Trafficking and Distribution

  • Felony Trafficking: The sale, distribution, or intent to sell controlled substances is considered drug trafficking. The penalties for drug trafficking offenses are more severe than possession charges and vary based on several factors, such as the type and quantity of the drug involved. Penalties can range from several years to life imprisonment, depending on the degree of the felony and other aggravating factors.
  • Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Ohio has mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug trafficking offenses, particularly those involving large quantities or specific substances. These mandatory minimums require individuals convicted of these offenses to serve a specific period of imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services Crime Statistics Report in 2021, reported that drug violation arrests numbered in the thousands each year, reflecting ongoing efforts to combat drug trafficking and abuse in the state.

3. Drug Manufacturing

Illegally producing controlled substances, such as cultivating marijuana or manufacturing methamphetamine, is a serious offense. Penalties for drug manufacturing vary widely depending on the type and quantity of the drug involved, with potential imprisonment ranging from several years to life, along with significant fines.

Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services, Crime Statistics Report, Ohio law enforcement reported 9,582 incidents related to the manufacture, sale, or possession of drugs. This statistic, while broad, includes manufacturing among other drug-related offenses and highlights the ongoing challenges the state faces in curbing illegal drug production and distribution.

According to Ohio’s Revised Code, manufacturing drugs classified in Ohio’s Schedule I or II will result in a second-degree felony charge, potentially leading to a mandatory six to 18-month prison sentence and fines not exceeding $15,000. If these Schedule I or II drugs are manufactured near a school or involve a juvenile, the charge escalates to a first-degree felony, with a mandatory prison term of three to ten years and fines up to $20,000. For drugs in Schedule III, IV, or V, the offense is classified as a third-degree felony, punishable by one to five years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

4. Drug Paraphernalia

In Ohio, drug paraphernalia refers to any equipment, product, or material intended for use in activities related to controlled substances, such as manufacturing, packaging, analyzing, or consuming these substances. Items commonly recognized as paraphernalia include kits for processing plants or substances, devices for enhancing drug potency, various forms of testing equipment, scales, and mixing devices, among others. Items specifically for drug consumption, like pipes, bongs, and syringes, also fall under this category.

The law also takes into account factors like statements about the item’s use, proximity to controlled substances, and evidence of residue to determine if an object is considered paraphernalia. Additionally, it’s illegal to possess, use, or sell drug paraphernalia, with penalties ranging from misdemeanors to felonies depending on the nature of the violation.

How Does Ohio’s Drug Laws Address Addiction Treatment and Rehabilitation?

Ohio’s drug laws recognize the importance of addiction treatment and rehabilitation as crucial components in addressing substance abuse issues. The state has implemented various initiatives and programs to support individuals seeking help for addiction. Here are some ways in which Ohio’s drug laws address addiction treatment and rehabilitation:

1. Diversion Programs

Ohio offers diversion programs that aim to provide alternatives to traditional sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. These programs focus on treatment and rehabilitation rather than incarceration, allowing individuals to access the necessary support and services to address their addiction.

Eligibility for these programs typically excludes repeat offenders, those charged with violent crimes, or serious drug trafficking offenses. According to the Ohio Revised Code, diversion programs are not applicable to repeat offenders or dangerous offenders, those accused of an offense of violence, or certain drug offenses unless specific conditions are met that justify the diversion.

2. Drug Courts

Ohio has established specialized drug courts that focus on cases involving individuals with substance use disorders. According to the National Institute of Justice, these courts integrate treatment and rehabilitation services with judicial oversight, offering participants access to addiction treatment, counseling, and other support systems. The aim of these courts is to reduce recidivism by addressing the underlying issues of substance abuse through comprehensive support mechanisms. Successfully completing a drug court program can result in reduced or dismissed charges, providing participants with a pathway to recovery and reducing the burden on the criminal justice system.

3. Access to Treatment

According to the Ohio Department of Medicaid and the Ohio Department of Health, Ohio has expanded Medicaid coverage to include substance abuse treatment, making it more accessible to individuals without private insurance. Additionally, the state has implemented initiatives to increase the availability of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction. These efforts reflect Ohio’s commitment to improving access to addiction treatment services and addressing the challenges posed by substance abuse in the state.

4. Good Samaritan Law

Ohio’s Good Samaritan Law is designed to encourage individuals to seek help for drug overdoses and other medical emergencies related to substance abuse without fear of legal repercussions. Here are the details of the law:

  1. Legal Protections: The Good Samaritan Law in Ohio provides legal protections for individuals who report drug overdoses or other medical emergencies related to substance abuse. This means that individuals who seek medical assistance for themselves or others during an overdose situation are shielded from certain drug-related charges or prosecutions.
  2. Scope of Protection: The law typically offers protection from charges such as possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, or underage possession of alcohol for those who seek help in good faith during an emergency. It is important to note that the law does not provide immunity for more serious offenses, such as drug trafficking or distribution.
  3. Encouraging Reporting: By offering legal protections, the Good Samaritan Law aims to encourage individuals to promptly report overdose incidents and seek medical assistance. This can be crucial in saving lives by ensuring timely access to medical interventions, such as naloxone administration for opioid overdoses.
  4. Public Health Approach: The implementation of Good Samaritan laws reflects a broader public health approach to substance abuse, emphasizing harm reduction and encouraging individuals to prioritize seeking medical help during emergencies rather than avoiding it due to legal concerns.

5. Naloxone Access

Ohio has implemented measures to increase access to naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses. Each year, Ohio experiences over 4,000 overdose deaths, ranking among the highest in the nation for overdose death rates. In 2022, the state reported 4,915 deaths due to unintentional drug overdoses. However, there was a roughly 6% decrease in overdose deaths in Ohio in 2023 compared to 2022, as per a preliminary estimate from Harm Reduction Ohio. Naloxone is available without a prescription at many pharmacies in the state, and first responders, as well as community organizations, are equipped with naloxone to administer in emergencies.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, the Integrated Naloxone Access and Infrastructure local grant program, funded through the Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services (Ohio MHAS), is being implemented by VIPS. Currently, 37 agencies are participating in this program, which includes 118 distribution strategies. The aim is to target Ohio’s highest-risk individuals by implementing naloxone distribution programs across various settings such as community agencies, jails, recovery housing, emergency departments, homeless outreach initiatives, mail services, drug courts, syringe access programs, and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs).

How can I obtain prescription drugs in Ohio?

To obtain prescription drugs in Ohio, you need to have a valid prescription from a licensed healthcare provider. You can obtain a prescription by visiting a healthcare professional, such as a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant, who will evaluate your condition and determine if medication is necessary. You can then take the prescription to a pharmacy to have it filled. It is important to follow the instructions provided by your healthcare provider and only take prescribed medications as directed.

Can I purchase over-the-counter medications without a prescription in Ohio?

Yes, you can purchase over-the-counter (OTC) medications without a prescription in Ohio. Over-the-counter medications are widely available at pharmacies, grocery stores, and other retail outlets. These medications are labeled for self-use, and you can buy them directly off the shelves without needing a prescription from a healthcare provider.

Do first-time drug offenders go to jail in Ohio?

The penalties for first-time drug offenders in Ohio vary depending on several factors, including the type and quantity of the drug involved, the intent (possession, trafficking, manufacturing, or distribution), and the offender’s criminal history. While first-time drug offenders can be sentenced to jail time, it is not an automatic outcome.

Ryan Wakim MD
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Dr. Wakim is a board-certified psychiatrist with a passion for and expertise in addiction, mood disorders, trauma-related disorders and the subspecialty of interventional psychiatry. He obtained his medical degree from West Virginia University where he also completed his residency training, finishing as chief resident. Dr. Wakim co-founded and served as the CEO of Transformations leading to a successful merger with Shore Capital in May 2021. He is purpose driven towards improving the standard of and removing stigma related to behavioral healthcare. Dr. Wakim enjoys golf, traveling and time spent with his two dogs, Lulu and Rayna.

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