Lawmakers introduce bill to lessen penalties for drug users

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DENVER -- Four state lawmakers, two of them Democrats and two Republicans, introduced legislation Wednesday that aims to reduce penalties for drug users and to put the money spent on incarcerating them toward treatment programs instead.

One of those four lawmakers sponsoring Senate Bill 163 brings a personal story of how his family has been affected by addiction.

"My younger brother has been a meth addict for nearly a decade," said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, during a press conference Wednesday morning. "He's has been in jail in more than one state, he has a felony conviction."

Mitchell pointed to his brother's rehabilitation as proof that incarceration without treatment isn't productive, the basic argument behind the legislation that would reduce drug use crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and direct the funding normally spent on prison beds toward addiction treatment programs.

"He got a treatment program in a county jail in Utah that helped him see things differently and my family is filled with love and hope for his turnaround," Mitchell said.

The bill would only lessen penalties for drug users, not dealers.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, also presented the proposal as an employment bill, arguing that felony sentences often carry the added consequence of sentencing even recovered addicts to "a lifetime of unemployment.

"It simply doesn't make sense to mark somebody for the rest of their lives who have had a problem in their youth," Levy said.

A study last fall by the Division of Criminal Justice found that of all drug offenders sentenced to prison, 60% were convicted of drug possession, at an average cost of $32,000 per offender per year, or nearly $10 million per year.

"Going to prison does not help someone with a drug problem. They don't get treatment in prison, and it's a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources," Levy said. "This bill is not only about being smarter on crime, but it's about saving taxpayer money and devoting those resources to better purposes."

Specifically, S.B. 163 will reduce the crime of possession of 4 grams or less of a schedule I or II controlled substance or 2 grams or less of methamphetamine from a felony to a misdemeanor.