- Associated Press - Saturday, October 13, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s support of an Ohio ballot proposal aimed at reducing the state’s prison population by making most drug possession cases misdemeanor crimes places the Republican stalwart at odds with many in his party.

An Oct. 7 column Gingrich co-authored with civil rights activist Van Jones argues that Issue 1 provides a way for Ohio to change course in fighting the opioid crisis. Co-leaders of the nonpartisan Advocates for Opioid Recovery, Gingrich and Jones say Ohio wastes taxpayer dollars locking up people who are suffering from addiction.

“Law enforcement resources need to focus on violent and serious crimes, while states need to take real action to expand treatment for those battling addiction,” Gingrich and Jones said in the column published in western Ohio’s Lima News . “Issue 1 is the type of long overdue change states must make.”

Opponents argue Issue 1 could have unintended consequences, would tie judges’ hands in sentencing drug defendants and would be difficult to fix if embedded into the constitution.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, wrote in an op-ed piece the proposed reforms would have “catastrophic consequences” for the state if possession of the powerful opioid fentanyl, blamed for the bulk of fatal overdoses in recent years, is reduced to a misdemeanor. Under the proposed amendment, possession of less than 20 grams - nearly three-quarters of an ounce - of fentanyl would no longer be a felony that could lead to a prison sentence.

Issue 1 supporters counter that people arrested with anything more than a small amount of fentanyl are almost always charged with felony trafficking.

The measure calls for reducing the purchase, possession or use of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and LSD from felonies to misdemeanors. Jail time couldn’t be imposed until a third drug offense within a two-year period. Savings from reducing the state’s prison population would be earmarked for drug treatment and crime victim programs.

It also allows for reductions of up to 25 percent on the sentences of current inmates who participate in rehabilitation, work or educational programming. Murderers, rapists and child molesters are ineligible for reductions.

Ohio attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine has made opposition to Issue 1 central to his campaign against Democrat Richard Cordray, who supports it. Cordray says that while drug dealers need to serve long prison sentences, Ohio should do more to get low-level drug offenders substance abuse treatment instead of putting them in prison.

In their column, Gingrich and Jones argue the nation’s “current response to drug addiction in America stubbornly relies on obsolete practices and beliefs about addiction and recovery.”

“The opioid epidemic is not partisan, and the solutions are not liberal or conservative,” they wrote. “To solve this horrific problem, we must look beyond political ideology and see facts.”

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