Colorado has taken yet another step towards sensible, progressive drug policy with Governor Pollis signing into law House Bill 19-1263, which “de-felonizes” the mere possession of many common drugs and modifies the sentences for drug misdemeanor charges to focus on treatment rather than punishment.
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.
House Bill 19-1263 changes Colorado’s drug laws in several key ways.
First, the bill changes simple possession of a Schedule I or II controlled substance, such as heroin, LSD, MDMA, cocaine, and ecstasy, from a Drug Felony 4 to a Drug Misdemeanor 1. Since 2013, the 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 such substance will be charged as a misdemeanor that cannot carry a prison sentence. Even more important, a conviction is no longer a felony and can be sealed 5 years after the completion of any sentence.
Second, the bill changes the potential 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.
In addition to the major provisions, the bill also includes some minor tweaks to existing drug laws. HB 19-1263 gets rid of drug felony charges for possession of over 12 ounces of marijuana or 3 ounces of marijuana concentrate. Possession of over 6 ounces of marijuana or 3 ounces of concentrate is now a Drug Misdemeanor 1, and possession of 2-6 ounces of marijuana or less than 3 ounces of concentrate is a Drug Misdemeanor 2. The bill also requires officers to issue a summons (a ticket) rather than arrest for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana and modifies the possible sentence for charges involving the abuse of toxic vapors, commonly known as “huffing”. Finally, the bill allows courts greater discretion in the imposition of community service hours for drug offenders and creates a grant to fund “Drug Court” programs.
HB 19-1263 goes into effect on January 1st, 2020. The bill is not retroactive, so any drug charge from before January 1st, 2020 will fall under the old existing law.
While HB19-1263 should be applauded as another step towards sensible drug policy that recognizes the true nature of drug use and addiction, facing a drug charge is still a serious matter that merits retaining experienced legal counsel. If you or a loved one is facing a drug charge, please contact Jurdem LLC and let us help you navigate this complex and evolving area of law.