“Defelonization” is not a word you hear very often in the news business. Particularly when it’s in the same sentence as “schedule I drug possession.”
But these are strange and exciting times, and Colorado’s freshly elected Governor Jared Polis, is shaking things up in this state. On Tuesday of this week he signed a bill that will defelonize personal use possession of drugs like fentanyl, heroin, meth, cocaine, LSD and just about every other Schedule I and II substance. HB19-1263 instead makes possession of these substances a level 1 drug misdemeanor.
Which is to say, next time you’re caught with an eight-ball of coke, a gram of molly, a couple hits of acid or whatever other drug might be in your pocket, you won’t have to fear for your future. You’ll probably get a ticket and a talking to, you’ll probably have to go to court, pay a fine and maybe do some kind of community service or stint on probation. Your drugs will be confiscated.
But you won’t be hauled off to prison.
That’s a big deal. Incarceration for non-violent drug possession is indefensibly stupid and expensive. Not only are non-violent people being locked behind bars, to rot away in a violent place, surrounded by violent people, but it costs taxpayers a lot to maintain. If there’s anything the Drug War has proven, it’s that America’s drug problem cannot simply be “arrested away.”
HB19-1263 aims to address that fact. It will effectively protect non-violent offenders from having their potential squashed just because they got caught with a little blow in their pocket. Offenders will be directed towards treatment options instead of being thrown in a cell, which will save the state millions of dollars. According to a report from the Joint Budget Committee, this bill could save Colorado between $8.6 and $13.7 million just in its first five years.
It may seem like a small step in the fight to end the Drug War, but it really is a significant one. Colorado has a history of setting trends in this country, and now that Polis has defelonized personal use drug possession it’s not absurd to imagine that other states will follow suit. And if they do, it will deal a heavy blow to the criminalization of drugs and persecution of drug users our society is so hell bent on upholding.
That’s the only realistic way this country’s War on Drugs is ever going to be “won”: by softening the penalties for possession and redirecting government energy, resources and tax dollars towards treating the problem, instead of punishing it — by addressing the root cause instead of reacting to the side effects.
Polis’ “defelonization” bill will go into effect in 2020 (so, don’t throw caution to the wind just yet) and hopefully this is just the beginning. Hopefully this is just the start of a national drift away from this culture of mass-incarceration of punishing non-violent drug users to the fullest and most severe extent of the law.
Hopefully this is the first crack of many in the dam that’s keeping non-violent drug offenders locked up in prison.