A law that would drop Colorado's single-use drug possession charge from a felony to a misdemeanor is set to take effect this year, but a state representative is trying to stop that before it begins.
House Bill 1263 passed the Colorado Legislature easily in 2019 and was signed by Governor Jared Polis. As a result, in March the new law will change the charge of possession of less than two grams of heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, MDMA, LSD and psilocybin mushrooms from a felony to a misdemeanor, while possession of six ounces of marijuana or more than three ounces of hash will also become misdemeanors.
Pushed as a drug reform effort, the law is intended to send drug users to treatment instead of jail, according to its legislative sponsors. Possession with the intent to sell would still be a felony, as would four single-use possession offenses. The law also calls for a grant program starting in July that will help fund counties' mental health and drug treatment services, as well as four law enforcement diversion programs across the state.
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But earlier this month, Representative Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, introduced House Bill 1150, a proposal that would prevent the new law and its attached programs from taking effect. The "Repeal House Bill 19-1263 Penalties for Drug Possession" Act would do just what its name implies, blocking or reversing the upcoming reforms to Colorado's drug laws and repealing substance use and mental health service grants also established by HB 1263.
Local law enforcement agencies had opposed HB 1263 last year, arguing that county jails would need more resources to house offenders facing misdemeanor drug charges who would previously have been sentenced to prison.
But according to Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition policy coordinator Terri Hurst, it would cost money to reverse the new law at this point, too. Hurst, who lobbied for HB 1263, says that CCJRC lobbyists have reached out to McKean and that "he’s aware there’s opposition" to his efforts to repeal the upcoming law. (McKean, who voted against HB 1263, did not respond to Westword's requests for comment.)
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"Sometimes bills are introduced for the ability to stand on the soapbox, but I couldn't say why Representative McKean did this," Hurst says. "We need to focus more on drug use as a public-health issue and health-care issue, and not just as criminal justice."
McKean's bill would need to get through the Colorado General Assembly before March 1 in order to stop the new law from taking effect, and it faces an uphill battle in a legislature that is even more Democrat-heavy than it was in 2019. The measure's first hearing is before the House Judiciary Committee; Representative Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who was a prime sponsor of HB 1263, is vice chair.
"He's got to get the bill out of my committee," Herod says. "This [law] was about getting people out of jail and into treatment. This can impact where you live, where you work and how you interact with your community. My goal was to take that away."
HB 1150 currently has no other sponsors; the bill's first hearing is scheduled for February 13.