This week, the Colorado Department of Human Services, in conjunction with Governor John Hickenlooper's office, formally requested that the General Assembly allocate more than $6 million annually from the state's marijuana-tax cash fund for a new program that would offer help to chronic drug users as opposed to criminalizing them. Art Way, senior director for criminal-justice reform and Colorado director with the national Drug Policy Alliance, which worked closely with state agencies in crafting the proposal (it's on view below), sees the impact of this approach as potentially revolutionary for those struggling with addictions to heroin and other heavy narcotics.
If approved, Way says, "marijuana tax revenue and marijuana legalization will fund broader drug-policy purposes and drug-policy concerns that have long had more of an impact on society, both from a human perspective and a fiscal perspective. We're talking about other substances on which users become truly dependent, and people who are on the chaotic end of the use spectrum. So for marijuana legalization to fund this is a game-changer."
He adds: "I'm starting to realize that reform can almost fund itself. This is how we envisioned marijuana legalization — to be able to assist larger drug-reform purposes."
The concept involves law enforcement-assisted diversion, known by the acronym LEAD. Here's how Way explains it.
"LEAD dollars will fund local managed service organizations — things like Arapahoe House or Denver Cares — to provide 24/7 services," he says. "So instead of officers arresting someone for low-level drug use or possession or sales, they can ask, 'Would you like to be part of this program?' And if they say yes, the officer would take that person to the case manager at that time."
The advantages of the program are multifaceted, Way believes. "There would be no booking into local city jails — and low-level drug offenders are the primary reason many of our jails are operating at or above capacity. So moving out low-level drug offenders is a benefit for the local jails and a benefit for offenders. It's a way for police to be involved in dealing with this issue from a public-health perspective and not from the standpoint of morality and judgment."
Way stresses that the program will focus on "harm reduction, not abstinence only. It's simply looking to stabilize the person. And we're not talking about casual drug users — weekend warriors. This is about frequent fliers, people who are often homeless and typically have co-occurring mental-health problems. These are the people we see in west Aurora and the open-air drug markets on East Colfax. The program changes the police's rules of engagement with this demographic, and it also increases the public-health and treatment infrastructure within the community."
LEAD tactics wouldn't be imposed on all of the state's municipalities. The plan calls for communities (up to four in the first year of implementation) to apply for grants to fund local initiatives. "Every jurisdiction will be able to craft a policy as they see fit to address their most impacted areas," Way allows. "Let's say Denver chooses to engage. They may want to target the area near Civic Center and areas of East Colfax. Aurora may want to use it on certain areas of East Colfax in its community. Pueblo has certain areas where open-air drug use and vagrancy concerns are the highest. So this is a way for communities to use the program where it's needed the most."
In Way's view, another benefit to the plan is the way it will secure assistance for the mentally ill rather than putting often innocent people in jail — an ongoing problem in Colorado, as we recently reported.
He mentions the cases of Michael Marshall, who died in the Denver jail under controversial circumstances circa November 2015, and Paul Childs, who was killed by Denver police in 2003. "I think they're the kind of people who would have benefited from this program. Under it, we could have someone who's part of a mental health co-respondent program ride along with an officer in cases where they're dealing with someone who has mental-health concerns and help the officer de-escalate that situation. In that way, this isn't only about drug-policy reform; it's about improving police accountability."
At this point, the Department of Human Services will take the lead in presenting the proposal to the legislature's joint budget committee. But the Drug Policy Alliance is reaching out to various stakeholders, many of which are already backing the plan. "We're talking about support from county health departments, district attorneys, treatment organizations," Way reveals. "We hope many of them will be able to take part in this program, especially since this is an annual allocation, which we weren't expecting. Five or six years from now, we could potentially have half of the jurisdictions in the state involved in these policies."
The program fits neatly within the parameters of the Drug Policy Alliance's overall mission. "Ultimately, we don't believe people should face criminal charges for possessing small amounts of drugs in general," Way says. "But this is about people we consider truly problematic users — people who need assistance, but not assistance from the criminal-justice system. It will allow us to reallocate resources to address more pressing concerns than what we're doing currently."
Here's the complete proposal.