State law currently treats drug users and dealers much the same. People convicted of possessing one gram or less can face between two to six years in state prison.
A bill introduced Tuesday by Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, would create a distinction in the law between dealing and using and raise the threshold for possession to four grams for most drugs.
Prosecutors would be able to charge drug users with a less severe felony carrying a sentence of between 12 and 18 months. However, they'd still retain the right to charge anyone with four grams or less with distribution if, for example, their drug supply was cut up and packaged to sell.
Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter's criminal justice commission recommended the new possession limit after talking to former drug sellers and drug investigators about what amount was most common for personal use. However, they recommended the personal use threshold for methamphetamine be two grams or less because of the drug's health and safety risk.
Waller and the bill's Senate sponsor, Democrat Pat Steadman of Denver, say the shorter sentences will save the state money and the savings should be used to shore up community-based addiction treatment programs, which they say are more effective at stopping drug use.
"I'm convinced that warehousing people who are addicts doesn't do anything to solve the problem," said Waller, a former deputy district attorney in Pueblo County.
The proposal has the support of Republican Attorney General John Suthers, the Colorado District Attorney's Council and the state's top public defender, Doug Wilson. It also has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, and the its wide support should help it win approval.
Backers don't have an estimate of how much money would be saved yet. They say Washington State saved about $800,000 in the first year after changing its drug laws but acknowledge that the proposed change in Colorado is more modest first step, partly because the state doesn't have a strong of a drug treatment system. Steadman said he hopes the savings will help build it up.
In some ways the proposed change would align with how many judges already treat drug cases, with first time drug users often being sentenced to probation first. Suthers said he's not sure how much money the change will save because many inmates with drug problems in state prison have also committed other crimes to support their habit, such as burglary and identity theft, and need to serve their time for those offenses. However, he said changing the law sends the right message about how the justice system should approach those who are just using drugs.
"Our emphasis should be on treatment," Suthers said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)