Drug Law Changes
Strategies to deal with drug use and abuse have changed drastically throughout U.S. history. Attitudes toward addiction have also changed.
In the 1960s, drug use became more common among the middle class and was a sign of rebellion. In response, federal and state governments came up with various programs, departments, laws, and regulations to control drug use and possession. Proposed and enacted solutions include the expansion of methadone use for heroin addicts in prison, the War on Drugs, and the formation of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
One of the newest changes to drug policy in the state of Colorado is HB 19-1263. This law is a means to “defelonize” Schedule I and II drugs.
The bill changes the way people will be affected if they are arrested because of drug possession in the following ways:
- Possession of Schedule I and II drugs in amounts of at least 4 grams will now be a level 1 misdemeanor instead of a felony. The exception is that all amounts of GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), also known as “the date-rape drug,” are still illegal.
- Carrying more than 6 ounces of marijuana or 3 ounces of marijuana concentrates is now a level 1 misdemeanor.
- Possession of 3 ounces of marijuana concentrate or less will now be a level 2 misdemeanor.
- Possession of 2 grams of marijuana or less will no longer result in arrest.
- Courts can issue warrants for people who do not show up to court dates relating to misdemeanor charges for possession.
Sentencing is also affected by the law.
- Courts can impose probation or treatment. If sentencing gets in the way of either of these, it can be substituted for public service instead.
- The Uniform Controlled Substances Act of 2013 can only subject people to photographing and fingerprinting requirements if they have been sentenced with a felony.
- Level 1 misdemeanors for marijuana or marijuana concentrate possession are now subject to 180 days in county jail or up to 2 years of probation. A 180-day jail sentence can be given for the violation of probation or as a condition of this sentencing. A subsequent or third level 1 misdemeanor offense may result in a 364-day jail sentence and a possible fine of $1,000.
- Level 2 misdemeanors for unlawful use of a substance, marijuana or marijuana concentrate possession, use of unlawful inhalants, or use of other laboratory-made scheduled substances will be subject to a 120-day jail sentence or a year of probation. The 120-day sentence may be a condition of probation or because of a violation of probation. A third or successive offense is subject to a 180-day jail sentence and a possible fine of $500.
The bill also sets money aside for grants to implement treatment and mental health services, and find ways to reduce jail and prison sentences for people who become entangled with the criminal justice system.
What Supporters Say
Those who support HB19-1263 say it will help stop the cycle of arresting people because of drug problems. Supporters believe the bill would save taxpayer money by reducing the amount of time people spend in jail or prison.
Currently, it is difficult for people with felonies on their record to find work or a place to live. The bill may reduce this issue for people trying to get back on track by decreasing their likelihood of committing a felony.
Supporters also cite success with defelonizing drugs in states like California and Utah. They say drug courts in states like Utah can now better concentrate on people with high needs. Furthermore, supporters mention that people who repeatedly offend can still be charged with a felony if they do not change their ways.
What Some Opponents Say
Some sheriffs oppose HB 19-1263 because they feel those who are sentenced to jail may end up in places with no resources to treat drug use, such as the Department of Corrections.
An El Paso County sheriff commented that this bill could become an issue during the current opioid crisis, and he cited fears that the bill may not be good for local authorities.
Detractors use Seattle as an example of what could go wrong once this law is implemented. The City of Seattle reports that overdose is a dominant cause of death among the homeless in its populace. More residents of Seattle sought help for heroin detox than for alcohol detox in 2014.
Treatment vs. Jail Time for Drug Offenses
There are some cases in which inmates can receive treatment for drug use in prisons, as reported by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Studies show that prison programs to treat drug use must be adequately funded, have enough qualified staff members, provide proven and effective treatment that addresses other aspects of a person’s life in addition to their drug use, and provide aftercare once an inmate is released or in parole.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that society loses up to $193 billion because of drug abuse. This number takes into account the cost of dealing with offenders in a criminal justice setting and losses of people who are victims of drug-related crimes.
In contrast, treating drug problems may cost $14.6 billion. Treating individuals with drug use disorders may also mitigate losses related to crime, productivity, and putting offenders in jail.
The Bottom Line
There are pros and cons to HB 19-1263, as there are to any law.
By defelonizing certain levels of drug use and possession, the hope is that people will be able to seek addiction treatment if they need it rather than ending up in a cycle of drug use and incarceration. Time will show if the new law has this effect and exactly how much money it ends up saving taxpayers in the process.