Bill calling for drug misdemeanors morphs into a study

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Drug possession will not be reduced to a misdemeanor in Colorado this year after opposition from prosecutors torpedoed a sentencing reform bill.

Instead Senate Bill 12-163 will now require a comprehensive study of Colorados drug sentencing guidelines that could result in new legislation next year.

Revisions to the bill are expected to be presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday. The new bill calls for the drug policy task force of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to convene a study and produce draft legislation within six months.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers had hoped that SB 163 would send fewer drug addicts to prison and divert cost savings to expanded treatment programs. But county sheriffs and prosecutors, including Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, fought the bill, saying that without threat of felonies, they could not force drug addicts into treatment.

Backers of the bill said they are disappointed, but hope that new, stronger legislation will result from the study.

To me its very frustrating, said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, one of the bills sponsors. I just dont think a felony is the right response to a personal weakness.

While Mitchell is not convinced that drug addiction is always a disease, he said its not right to punish people for drug use with the same sentences that are doled out to violent criminals.

Maureen Cain, a criminal defense attorney and legislative policy director for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, has been working with the bill sponsors. She said research is clear that felonies dont help people beat their addictions.

We had hoped that this year, with all the bipartisan support, we would be able to move forward with substantive changes to the drug sentencing (guidelines) to differentiate between those people who are primarily abusers or addicts of drugs, and those who are in the business of drug dealing and trafficking, Cain said.

But prosecutors had concerns that made it clear the bill could not move forward this year. Cain said all sides agreed that a six-month study would help bring consensus for comprehensive reform.

I was disappointed, but not devastated. Im hoping that we can come back bigger, better and stronger next year, Cain said. Once we get (reform) in drug sentencing, then we close more prisons and continue to reduce crime.

Morrissey had testified about his concerns that the bill would have killed the Denver Drug Court. He said felonies are essential in order to compel drug abusers to participate in tough drug treatment programs.

I was surprised that this bill was run at all, said Morrissey. It was a bad bill. The way it was written, it would have allowed somebody carrying over $1,000-worth of crack cocaine, 80 doses of heroin, over 100 doses of methamphetamine to be walking the streets and that would only be a misdemeanor.

He described Denver neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill and LoDo, as open-air drug markets, and said the impact on the people and businesses in those neighborhoods would have been severe had the bill been enacted.