For far too many Colorado residents, poor choices or the side effects of medical prescriptions have set them on a path of life-long addiction. Until now, that addiction has come with felony convictions and long periods in jails and prisons without the tools to help them break the cycle. Now a new Colorado drug law is turning down the heat on possession convictions, and placing the priority on treatment, not jail time.
In this blog post I will discuss House Bill 19-1263, which was signed into law on May 28, 2019. It reduces the maximum penalty for possession of Schedule I and II drugs for personal use. I will explain the new maximum penalties for the crimes, and explain what you can do if you have already been convicted of drug possession charges.
Colorado Legislators Propose Reducing Drug Penalties in the Face of Mounting Prison Costs
Colorado prisons are bursting at the scenes. According to one report, in December 2018, there were only 93 open beds in the entire state system (with a 14,000 capacity). Many of those headed to jail and prison are there because of drug problems. The number of felony drug filings has more than doubled since 2012 according to the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Of those felony filings, 75% are drug possession charges.
The governor and state legislators have been scrambling to find ways to reduce the number of incarcerated Colorado residents and relieve the overworked criminal courts. There have been several bills to add district court judges, reopen a prison, and take other steps to improve the system. But HB 19-1263 is different. It goes to the source of the problem by reducing the maximum penalties for those convicted of simple drug possession charges.
The bill was introduced on March 22, 2019, by Representatives Leslie Herod (D – Denver) and Shane Sandridge (R – El Paso) in the House of Representatives and Senators Vicki Marble (R – Broomfield, Larimer, Weld) and Pete Lee (D – El Paso) in the Senate. It overhauled the Colorado Uniform Controlled Substances Act of 2013, reducing the penalties for drug possession charges and creating new opportunities to prioritize treatment over jail time.
Nearly All Drug Possession Charges Are Now Misdemeanors
The most substantial change under the new law is that nearly all simple drug possession charges will now be Class 1 or Class 2 misdemeanors, rather than Class 4 felonies. Possession of Schedule I and Schedule II drugs, such as heroin or ecstasy used to come with penalties of 6 months to 1 year in jail and fines of $1,000 to $100,000. It also included a mandatory 1 year parole period and useful public service requirements.
Now, possession of most Schedule I and II controlled substances and possession of more than 6 ounces of marijuana (or 3 ounces of marijuana concentrate) are level 1 drug misdemeanors. The maximum punishment for these drug possession charges are 180 in jail, 2 years probation, and a $1,000 fine. Possession of less serious drugs (Schedules III, IV, and V), toxic vapors, or up to 3 ounces of marijuana are now Class 2 drug misdemeanors. Conviction can mean up to 120 days in jail, 1 year probation, and a $500 fine.
The new law also clarifies that starting March 1, 2020, you will not be arrested for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. While possession of this smaller amount of marijuana is still a petty offense and a Class 3 misdemeanor, the new law says you cannot be arrested unless you fail to appear in court for the possession offense.
The law also created options for judges and court systems hoping to provide help to drug-addicted defendants. The new legislation allows a judge to remove the requirement of useful public service if it will interfere with a defendant’s treatment or probation requirements. It also creates grant opportunities for local courts seeking to establish drug treatment and mental health courts to help addicted defendants avoid future drug possession charges.
Options for Colorado Residents with Drug Possession Convictions
HB 19-1263 isn’t retroactive. If you have already been convicted of drug possession, or are currently facing drug possession charges, the law will not automatically change your status. But the law does say:
“This sentencing scheme recognizes that drug use and possession is primarily a health concern and should be treated as such by Colorado courts.”
The law also allows for those who have been convicted of possession of certain controlled substances to complete their sentence and then have their felony conviction vacated and a misdemeanor conviction entered in its place. This can help those with past drug possession convictions avoid the stigma and lasting effects of a felony drug conviction.
The new law is good news for Colorado residents facing drug possession charges. It signals big changes in the state court system and a move to put treatment first, and jail time second. At Aviso Law, LLC, we have experience with the Colorado courts and stay up to day with the newest laws. That way you know what to expect when facing drug possession charges now, and in the future. We are here to serve you from the initial arrest, to conviction, sentencing, and through any probation or parole challenges. We will help you understand how the laws work together, and identify your best way forward. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.