Bipartisan effort launched to ease drug-addiction penalties

DENVER — Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle want the state to stop criminalizing drug addiction.

Instead of incarcerating people for minor possession of drugs, and convicting them of felonies in the process, they should get the treatment they need to no longer be addicts.

That way, they wouldn’t commit other crimes, and the state wouldn’t have to spend million of dollars keeping them in prison, four Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the House and Senate said Wednesday.

“The idea here is to redirect resources to actually help people overcome the disease of addiction,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We’re not talking about dealers or manufacturers or drug kingpins. We’re talking about the average user who has a drug problem.”

Steadman introduced the bill along with Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, and Reps. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, and Claire Levy, D-Boulder. Additionally, 15 other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle signed onto the measure, none from the Western Slope.

Lawmakers said the idea behind the bill is to save the state money in not having to incarcerate felons and to prevent them from becoming felons in the first place, thus preventing them from committing other crimes to support their habit.

Instead of spending millions of dollars on prisons, the state would spend a few thousand dollars in treatment programs, Levy said.

“You get a misdemeanor conviction, you get a lighter sentence, but you also get the resources you need ... to get treatment and hopefully not reoffend,” she said.

If people are concerned lawmakers might seem to be weak on crime by lowering the penalty for possession, Mitchell said they shouldn’t be. A misdemeanor conviction can come with jail time and be a deterrent, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense to brand somebody with an employment and financial disability for the rest of their life,” he said of felons. “We want to stop this destructive cycle and turn them around and put them on a more productive path.”

Mitchell said he has personal experience with such matters. He said his brother has a life-long methamphetamine problem and lost his job and family as a result.

The legislators said there is more than enough evidence showing drug users who break their addictions don’t later end up in court or prison for committing other crimes.

Twenty other states and the federal government already have reclassified certain drug possession crimes as misdemeanors, the lawmakers said.

The bill is to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee next Wednesday.


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