By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
The House Judiciary Committee Monday backed legislation that would place an emphasis on providing drug users with community-based counseling rather than send them to prison for long sentences.
House Bill 1352 passed the Judiciary Committee Monday on a unanimous vote.
The bipartisan measure would reduce the charge for simple possession for most drugs from a class 6 felony to a class 1 misdemeanor. Simple possession would be defined as four grams, instead of one gram in all cases except for with methamphetamine. In the case of meth, simple possession would be defined as two grams or less.
Marijuana comes with its own classification system. A petty offense for marijuana would be raised from one ounce to two ounces and include a $100 fine; possession between two to 12 ounces of marijuana would be considered a misdemeanor; and anything more than 12 ounces would be considered a felony.
The bill is expected to save the state $60 million over five years, according to Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, the bill’s sponsor.
“I (brought this bill forward) because I want to make our communities safer and I want to do it with the best bang for our limited public safety dollars as possible,” Waller told the Judiciary Committee.
Despite the bill’s unanimous approval, not everyone is in favor of the legislation. Beverly Kinard, founder of Guarding Our Children Against Marijuana, objected strongly to the $100 fine for petty possession of marijuana, arguing that the fine should be as high as $1,000 to deter children from using pot. She believes that a $1,000 fine would encourage parents to intervene.
“This bill gets the message out to young people that marijuana is OK,” Kinard told lawmakers.
But lawmakers are looking at both fiscal and social savings to the bill, noting that the measure could potentially lower simple possession sentences for those who are sent to prison from as many as six years in prison to 18 months.
The bill would also stiffen mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers who sell drugs to children.
The legislation stems from recommendations made by the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. Unlike sentencing reform bills of years past, HB 1352 has a broad spectrum of support, including the attorney general, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Republicans and Democrats.
“It does take a leap of faith, and it is in so many ways a paradigm shift that we’re asking people to understand in that a way to deal with these possession-type offenses is with an eye toward more good, meaningful evaluations and ongoing meaningful treatment so that you keep them out of the jails and out of the prisons and productive members of society and hopefully break the addiction cycle,” said Tom Raynes, deputy attorney general for the Attorney General’s Office.
Paul Thompson, a former heroin addict who spent time in prison for drug-related crimes but later became a counselor for Peer 1, said it is amazing for him to see lawmakers and prosecutors shift their priorities from sentencing to counseling.
“I believe this bill is historic,” said Thompson. “For someone like myself, it’s like watching man land on the moon to watch district attorneys and public defenders working together to help an addict. It’s an incredible thing.”