Starting in 2020, Colorado's new drug laws significantly reduce the penalties for possession charges and revamp sentencing to focus on treatment, not incarceration.
Possession is No Longer a Felony
Under the new law, possession of a Schedule I or II controlled substance, such as heroin, LSD, MDMA, cocaine, and ecstasy, will be lowered from a Drug Felony 4 to a Drug Misdemeanor 1. Since 2013, Colorado law encouraged the use of a prison sentence on possession charges only as a last resort and "wobbler" provision allowed Drug Felony 4 possession charges to retroactively be downgraded to a Drug Misdemeanor 1 in certain cases after a period of probation or community supervision was completed. Now, unless there is evidence to support a distribution charge, possession of any drug will be charged as a misdemeanor that cannot carry a prison sentence. Even more important, a conviction is no longer a felony and, under the new sealing law that will come into effect summer 2019, can be sealed 2 years after the completion of any sentence.
Jail is a Last Resort for Drug Charges
House Bill 19-1263 follows in the footsteps of other recent reforms, such as the creation of "Drug Felony" and "Drug Misdemeanor" offenses in 2013 and provisions that encourage treatment over incarceration and allow drug convictions to be sealed. These laws come in response to a growing national consensus that the criminalization of drug use and addiction turns addicts in need of treatment into criminals with a record that prevents them from gaining the employment, education, and housing necessary for recovery and re-integration into society.
The new law reduces the penalties for Drug Misdemeanor 1 and Drug Misdemeanor 2 offense in an effort to reconcile punishment with an understanding that "drug use and possession is primarily a health concern and should be treated as such by Colorado courts." A Drug Misdemeanor 1 now carries a potential sentence to 2 years of probation with up to 180 days jail for any violation (down from a potential 6-18 month jail sentence) and a fine up to $1000. A Drug Misdemeanor 2 now carries a potential sentence to 2 years probation with up to 120 days jail for any violation (down from a potential 12 month jail sentence) and a fine up to $500. The bill includes instructions that treatment, not punishment, is the goal, and that punishment for offenders who are determined to not need treatment should be minimal.
The New Law is Not Retroactive
Sadly, the new law will only apply to drug offenses charged after January 1st, 2020. For those facing current charges, the new law will be a useful tool for negotiations, and Colorado's new sealing statutes will provide some relief in allowing drug misdemeanors and most drug felonies to be sealed after a significantly shortened waiting period.
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