Bill would cut drug possession from felony to misdemeanor

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Possession of small amounts of meth, cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs would become misdemeanors rather than felonies under a new bill introduced in the Colorado legislature this week.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum formed a coalition to sponsor Senate Bill 12-163,which aims to give drug addicts treatment instead of costly prison sentences.

State budget analysts are still determining the bills fiscal impact. The bill calls for savings to fund more drug treatment programs. A fiscal note is due within about a week. Sponsors acknowledged that they introduced the bill late in the session in part because they were awaiting the latest, rosier budget forecast that came out earlier this week.

This is not legalization. This is not decriminalization. This is simply a smarter approach to fighting the evils of drug abuse in our society, said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, one of primary Senate sponsors.

House co-sponsor, Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, said the bill is part of a trend where progressives and conservatives are working together to create more sensible drug laws.

Drug possession is symptomatic of an illness addiction which should be treated as an illness and not criminally. Weve got strong evidence, conclusive evidence, that going to prison does not help somebody with a drug problem, Levy said.

This bill is not only about being smart on crime, but its about saving taxpayer money and devoting those resources to (treatment).

The sponsors said they also wanted to avoid the permanent stain of felony convictions, which make it nearly impossible for people to get good jobs even if they can get clean.

Addiction is something a person can overcome. We dont need to make more people into felons, said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, the other primary Senate sponsor.

Opponents of the bill say reducing possession of serious drugs to a misdemeanor removes a key deterrent and is shortsighted.

Proponents of the bill countered that the threat of a felony charge doesnt work as a deterrent anyway.

The bill reduces possession of four grams or less of Schedule I or II controlled substances and 2 grams or less of methamphetamine from a class six felony to a class 1 misdemeanor.

People caught possessing larger amounts and those who sell or traffic drugs will still face felony charges. The law would not change any sentences retroactively.

Sponsors estimate that as many as 80 percent of people behind bars are addicts. In many cases, their addictions drove them to criminal behavior. Sponsors said that about 60 percent of people behind bars for drug crimes have been convicted of possession rather than more serious charges.

Joining Levy as a House sponsor is Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield. He predicted that the bill will dramatically cut incarceration rates.

Were actually going to help people while reducing costs, he said.

For Mitchell, the issue is personal. He said he has a younger brother who has been a meth addict for about 10 years. Drug use cost his brother his job and his family. Mitchell said the proposed legislation would help people like his brother access drug treatment.

Mitchell said he wants to see wiser policies that save taxpayers money while improving health outcomes for addicts.

Most people, right, left and center recognize that were not winning the war on drugs. Maybe we need a different strategy.