The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published March 30 by Grand Junction Free Press.
Politicians trying to save people from the consequences of their own stupidity is itself stupid. The effort breeds invasive, Nanny State laws that undermine individual responsibility. The ultimate effect is to encourage stupidity rather than curb it.
Whether we care about personal health, responsible living, or responsible governance, what we need above all is a people capable of thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for their own actions. A government that attempts to do people’s thinking for them undermines responsible action.
Politicians trying to save people from the consequences of their own stupidity by threatening to destroy their lives with felony convictions is outright insanity. Yet that is precisely how Colorado law currently treats low-level drug offenders.
Thankfully, Senate Bill 163 would bring a touch of sanity to Colorado’s drug laws. Fox31 reports that the bill would “reduce the crime of possession of 4 grams or less of a schedule I or II controlled substance or 2 grams or less of methamphetamine from a felony to a misdemeanor.” The bill pertains to possession only, not distribution.
Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) and a supporter of the bill, explained the measure would alter criminal penalties for “everything from heroin and cocaine to methamphetamines,” drugs whose abuse often involves serious addictions. The bill would not impact marijuana, she added.
Those tempted to think of this as a weepy leftist “soft on crime” bill should consider that two of the bill’s sponsors, Shawn Mitchell and Don Beezley, are perhaps the legislature’s two most stalwart defenders of economic liberty.
In a remarkably personal moment, Mitchell said during a media conference (as reported by Fox31): “My younger brother has been a meth addict for nearly a decade. He’s has been in jail in more than one state, he has a felony conviction. He got a treatment program in a county jail in Utah that helped him see things differently and my family is filled with love and hope for his turnaround.”
Representative Claire Levy, a Boulder Democrat (if we may repeat ourselves), also talked sense: “Going to prison does not help someone with a drug problem. They don’t get treatment in prison, and it’s a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources. This bill is not only about being smarter on crime, but it’s about saving taxpayer money and devoting those resources to better purposes.”
In an email alert, CCJRC added, “A felony conviction is a lifetime punishment, resulting in significantly reduced ability to obtain housing and employment, the basics of productive life. Low-level drug possession does not warrant a lifetime of diminished opportunity.”
To be sure, the bill is not perfect. While the bill would pay for drug treatment out of savings from reduced incarceration, we’re not convinced the government should be in the business of financing drug treatment with dollars forcibly taken from taxpayers. We’d rather see voluntary efforts to fund drug treatment. But the bill wouldn’t spend any additional taxes, and its positive effects far outweighs our concern here.
Of course, the bill will do nothing directly to reduce the problems of criminal violence, toxically tainted drugs, and property damage associated with the criminal distribution of drugs. The simple fact is that all the worst problems associated with drugs result directly from the prohibition of those drugs, not the drugs themselves.
The largest and most obvious problem is all the gang violence surrounding the drug trade. As during the prohibition of alcohol, drug prohibition confers enormous wealth to violent criminal gangsters.
Moreover, we think it’s very likely that the nasty methamphetamines of today never even would have been invented but for the prohibition of milder amphetamines that pharmacists sold over the counter until a few decades ago.
But we don’t expect the legislature to embrace our radical views for at least a few more years. As a matter of practical politics, Bill 163 represents a good-faith effort by the bill’s sponsors to bring incremental but meaningful reform to the state’s drug laws.
We should not confuse a reduction in criminal penalties for possessing these drugs with any sort of sanction of the drugs’ abuse. Obviously these drugs can be extremely harmful to those abusing them. We personally know people who have seriously harmed their lives by abusing these drugs. Chances are good that you do, too.
But we’re not doing people with drug problems any favors by locking them up with hardened criminals or slapping them with a felony record. As Mitchell said, “If we’re trying to stop people from ruining their life with poison, it doesn’t make sense to ruin their life legally with the permanent consequences of a felony conviction.”
Those with drug problems deserve the chance to straighten out their lives, get on a good career path, and move on. For many, Bill 163 would give them that chance.