The Shifting Drug War

The pendulum is swinging back from stiff mandatory sentences for drug offenses.

"As incarceration has increased, crime has gone down," says Wadhams. "When people wind up in prison in Colorado, there's a good reason for it."

Gordon probably won't be able to get his bill through the legislature, predicts state senator Ken Arnold of Westminster.

"It might pass in the Senate, but I don't think it has much chance in the House," says Arnold, who voted against the proposal in committee.

Senator Ken Arnold believes the laws are fine as they are.
Senator Ken Arnold believes the laws are fine as they are.

Arnold believes Colorado's current sentencing laws are appropriate and have helped to reduce the crime rate. He also says many drug addicts don't want to be treated.

"There are lots of drug treatment programs available," says Arnold. "I don't think reducing the sentencing will solve any of our problems."

Politicians in Arizona and California were similarly hostile to the idea of changing their state laws, but that didn't stop voters from approving initiatives that are far more radical than what Gordon has proposed. Both of those states now mandate treatment for most drug offenders and have largely scrapped prison sentences for simple possession. In California alone, an estimated 30,000 drug offenders per year will be diverted from prison into treatment programs, saving the state as much as $250 million per year in prison costs.

Last year, California voters approved Proposition 36, which requires that anyone convicted of simple possession of an illegal drug be sent to treatment instead of prison. The measure, which passed with 61 percent of the vote, appropriates $120 million annually for treatment services. State analysts estimate that California will save $500 million in prison construction costs as a result of the new law.

The California law took effect July 1, so it's still too early to judge its effectiveness. Many people assumed treatment centers might be overrun, but so far, that hasn't happened. One surprise has been the number of hardcore drug addicts willing to follow through on treatment. Many of them lead chaotic lives with the added problems of mental illness, unemployment and homelessness. These people will likely require expensive residential treatment before they can turn their lives around, and it's not clear whether resources will be available for that.

Arizona's law has been on the books since 1998 and has had a dramatic impact. After the state's conservative legislature refused to modify harsh sentencing laws, activists went to the voters with an initiative that called for mandatory probation and treatment for those convicted of possession. The initiative passed with 57 percent of the vote.

The law finances treatment through a tax on alcohol, with half of the revenue going to a parents' commission to run drug prevention and treatment programs. In the first year, an estimated 2,622 people convicted of drug possession were placed in treatment, saving Arizona more than $5 million in prison costs. A subsequent study of the law's impact by the Arizona Supreme Court found that 76 percent of those ordered into treatment stayed drug-free while in a program, but only about 35 percent of participants were successful in giving up drugs entirely.

The success of these initiative campaigns in other western states has inspired local activists. Colorado voters have already joined voters in seven other states and passed laws allowing the use of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation to relieve pain experienced by those suffering from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other conditions. Since those laws contradict federal marijuana laws, the implementation is still being sorted out in the courts.

Donner says that if legislators don't change Colorado's drug-possession laws, her group is prepared to take a proposal directly to the voters.

"It's certainly something we're looking at," she says.

In a sign that Donner's group is becoming more political, it recently commissioned a poll of Colorado voters by the Ridder/Braden consulting group. That poll found that 83 percent of Coloradans believe we are losing the War on Drugs, and 85 percent agreed with the idea that current policies don't attempt to solve the underlying causes of drug abuse. Fifty-nine percent of voters polled said that drug addiction should be viewed primarily as a health problem, and 74 percent supported greatly increased funding for treatment programs.

Most surprisingly, large majorities of voters favored reducing penalties for drug possession. Seventy-three percent said they would support decreasing criminal penalties for possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and using the money saved on prison costs for treatment programs. An even larger number -- 85 percent -- said they believe that people convicted of drug possession should be allowed to remain in the community under supervision rather than being sent to prison.

Funding for the poll was provided by the Drug Policy Foundation, further evidence that Colorado is now in the sights of drug-law reformers. The foundation is funded by billionaire financier George Soros, who helped bankroll California's Proposition 36 campaign and would likely do the same in Colorado. Already, drug-law reformers are targeting Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio for initiative campaigns next year.

"We're looking to continue our initiative campaign in four or five states," says Adam Hollander of the Drug Policy Foundation. "One thing we're finding is that in all the states, there's overwhelming support from the public. Popular opinion is pretty much with us. We don't have to do too much to convince people."

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