A bill that would drop some drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors was introduced Tuesday in the Colorado Senate. Sponsors said the intent was to reduce prison populations and ensure that addicted drug users get treatment instead of long prison sentences.
Methamphetamine gets slightly stiffer treatment. In the case of meth, possession of less than two grams would drop from a Class VI felony to a misdemeanor, while possession of more than two grams would drop from Class IV to Class VI.
Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-District 23), one of the bill's cosponsors, has spoken publicly about his younger brother's struggles with meth and said he wants a more reasonable approach to drug use. His bill would require that any savings from reduced prison populations be used to fund drug treatment.
"The war on drugs has made government more powerful, citizens less free, and hasn't helped users or addicts," Mitchell said. "I want to push a smarter effort against drugs. I want to stop piling people into prisons and stop branding people with a felony for a personal weakness."
The bill has bipartisan support in the legislature, but is opposed by prosecutors.
Tom Raynes, head of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, told legislators that most first-time drug offenders already get deferred sentences that can be dismissed if they meet certain conditions, such as completing drug treatment programs. He said he is concerned the bill would remove an incentive for people to complete treatment.
"Kind of what keeps people in the program is concerns over getting a felony conviction," he said.
But the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, which supports the bill, reported that in the 16 months ending in November 2011, 310 people convicted of drug possession were sentenced to prison, accounting for 60% of all drug offenders sent to prison. Each one of them costs the state $32,000 a year to imprison.
"I think that as state budgets have struggled, under that there's been more energy put into asking ourselves what works to promote public safety," said Christie Donner, executive director of the coalition.
Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia already have laws making simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Similar legislation was introduced in California last month.
SB 163 has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it awaits a hearing.