By Phillip Smith
But when it comes to drug reform, there’s a lot more going on in the Rocky Mountain State than just buds, blunts, and bongs. In the past few years, Colorado has taken significant steps toward more enlightened drug policies, and with the powerful coalitions that have emerged to push the agenda, more is likely to come.
Passed last year while all the attention was on the legislature’s race to get marijuana commerce regulations passed, the single most significant piece of broader drug reform legislation was Senate Bill 250, which aims to rein in and redirect corrections spending by reducing the number of drug offenders in prison.
The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation. It allow provides that savings from the sentencing changes be plowed back into drug treatment.
The bill didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the outgrowth of a 2008 law that created the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. That panel brought together in one effort the heads of all the relevant state agencies as they grappled with how to reduce recidivism and put a brake on prison spending. It also provided an opportunity for groups like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) to start confronting the commission with research-based evidence about what does and doesn’t work.
“There is a lot of good evidence-based practice that shows what we did in the past didn’t work, and a lot of it had to do with national attention,” said Pam Clifton, communications coordinator for the CCJRC. “People were asking ‘How come half your people are going back to prison?’ Well, we didn’t have funding for treatment in Colorado. If you didn’t have any money, there wasn’t any place for you to go. Another problem was helping people on the front end. How can we be more proactive with people on probation? The recession gave us a little bit of leverage.”
But to get sentencing and drug reforms passed required not just a commission to come up with best policies and practices, but a political leadership that was willing to act. That came in 2008, when Colorado turned from red to blue, with a new Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, and Democrats in control of the legislature.
“When Bill Owens (R) was governor, he wasn’t going to let anything happen,” said Clifton. “But with the commission, a lot of conversations got started and we were able to educate about why change was needed, so when we had a change in leadership, there was a mandate from the commission to get good legislation passed. A lot of the recommendations the commission made went directly to the legislature, and when a bill showed up from the commission, it had a better opportunity to survive the process.”
And while, as noted above, the legislature has passed other reforms, Senate Bill 250 was the biggie.
“That was the landmark legislation that really changes things,” said Clifton. “This was the whole state — prosecutors, defense counsel, the commission, us — coming together and agreeing it was the right approach.”
The bill only went into effect last October, so its results remain to be seen. But advocates are confident it has not only changed the conversation about drugs and sentencing, but that it will pay off in terms of fewer prisoners doing less time at less cost to the state — and with less harm to the futures of drug offenders in the state.
“It’s too early to tell what impact Senate Bill 250 will have,” said Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “It was definitely a step in the right direction, though. It shrank the number of felony degrees for drug charges from six to four, and now, many low-level drug felonies can wobble down to misdemeanors thanks to that bill. It’s not true defelonization of use and possession, but it still gives defendants some opportunities to avoid the label of felons.”
And the CCJRC deserves some major credit, he said.
“The CCJRC has been doing great work in the past decade revealing that we are on an unsustainable path,” said Way. “The Department of Corrections budget was only increasing year after year, and they were able to make this a fiscal argument as well as a human argument. They’ve been at the forefront here.”
Another front where Colorado is forging ahead is harm reduction. Needle exchange programs were legalized in 2010 and there are now six across the state, the state passed a 911 Good Samaritan law in 2012, and a law allowing friends and family members of injection drug users to carry and administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) passed last year.
Activists have also managed to push through laws exempting needle exchange participants from the state’s drug paraphernalia laws, and in Denver, an ordinance last year allowed the first mobile needle exchange in the state.
“We’ve been really excited, not only about all these programs, but also about getting these policy wins,” said Lisa Raville of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. “Every time we go to the capitol, we’ve been winning. The legislature is very excited about harm reduction.”
After passing Senate Bill 250, this year was relatively quiet on the sentencing and drug reform front. There are a number of reasons for that, some of them having to do with gauging public (and legislative) attitudes in the wake of a well-publicized violent crime, the killing of state prison chief Tom Clements by a parolee.
“Our corrections director was murdered last spring, and that caused a lot of ripples and made people at the capitol freak out a bit, so we wanted to tread lightly,” said Clifton. “And things are really tricky in Colorado now,” she added. “Elections are coming up, and everyone’s concerned about what color we’re going to be come November. Our elected officials are all being very cautious right now.”
Like the CCJC, the harm reductionists were quiet in the legislature this year. It was a time for solidifying gains and getting previous victories implemented, Raville said.
“This is an election year, and we knew they would be playing defense at the capitol,” she said. “We decided this year would be all about promoting harm reduction policies and procedures. When we got those laws passed, we assumed that the legislature and the courts would implement them, but they didn’t, so we spent the first six months promoting implementation, working with the legislature, as well as working with doctors and pharmacies so they know about these new laws.
But that doesn’t mean the Harm Reduction Action Center is giving up on the legislature.
“Depending on how the election goes, our goal next year is total syringe decriminalization,” said Raville. “We have the exemption for needle exchange participants, but there are still folks who won’t ever access a needle exchange program, and we want them exempt as well. Now, you can get eight to 15 days in jail for every syringe, clean or used.”
Raville pointed to the success of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition in getting a similar measure passed last year in the last year in getting a similar measure passed in the Tar Heel State. That partial decriminalization bill allows people carrying needles to avoid arrest if they inform officers they are carrying them.
“Robert Childs and the NCHRC got that passed with the support of law enforcement, who didn’t want to get pricked,” she said. “That’s inspired us to work closely with the Denver Police Department. We have two officers on our advisory board.”
“We have an overdose issue here in Colorado,” Raville noted. “ODs have tripled in the past 10 years, and we have a fatal overdose every day and a half in the state. Not many doctors are prescribing naloxone, but we’ve had 92 overdose reversals so far. And a couple of hospitals in Denver are discharging overdose patients with a prescription for naloxone. We’re trying to make that the standard for hospitals across the state.”
While it was relatively quiet this year in the legislature, activists had to play defense on one set of bills and managed to kill them. That was a pair of bills to amend the civil code for child neglect to explicitly include marijuana use as an indicator, even though the state has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use and possession.
“Stopping that bill was our top concern this year,” said Way. “We worried that amending the civil code the way those bills tried to do would simply help law enforcement during drug investigations by leveraging parental rights. This wasn’t a public health approach; it was a law enforcement bill couched as a public health and child protection bill,” he said.
“The bill’s fiscal notes only involving increasing bed space for what they expected to an influx of people put in jail,” he noted. “There was nothing about access to treatment or reunification with kids. It was a standard, punitive drug war approach to a public health issue, and we were able to kill it for the second year in a row.”
The CCJRC, for its part, is continuing to push for reform. While it wasn’t ready to share its strategic planning for the near future, Clifton did say that the group is working around implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions requiring insurance companies to cover drug treatment.
“We’ve convened a stakeholder group from around the state — health care and criminal justice people — to make sure they knew each other as a step toward successfully implementing the ACA, getting more people in treatment, and reducing the prison population. We’re teaching people how to navigate the system and teaching the system how to help people navigate it,” she said.
And while sentencing reform and harm reduction efforts in Colorado haven’t, for the most part, been about marijuana, the whole opening on marijuana has given political and social space to drug reform efforts that go beyond pot.
“The conversation about marijuana has absolutely helped,” said Raville. “We legalized it and the sky didn’t fall. This has helped normalize pot and normalize drug use more broadly. And it’s been a good opportunity to talk to people about how voting matters.”
“Marijuana reform has helped legislators understand what we mean by a public health approach,” said Way. “We hope to now be able to address drug policy on a broader level with the legislature.”
But much of that will depend on what the makeup of the legislature looks like after November. Still, Colorado has shown what some persistence, some coalition-building, and some science, evidence, and compassion can accomplish.