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Colorado's War on Drugs a Fiscal Disaster

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Colorado lawmakers' long-running devotion to the War on Drugs has helped push state prison spending to unsustainable levels. In the meantime, illicit drugs remain readily available throughout the state. This year, the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) has broken down into several sub-groups including a Drug Policy Task Force, to take a hard look at the state's drug laws and sentencing policies.

This is an excellent opportunity for fiscal conservatives to take the lead in bringing some much needed scrutiny and restraint to corrections spending in Colorado.

In 1992, Colorado lawmakers surrendered their prerogative to write the state's criminal law and enacted the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, written by drug war bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and designed to bring state drug laws in to conformity with federal drug laws. The act, among many other things, created numerous new drug offenses, and sentencing enhancements for those offenses.

And the result?

Over the last several decades, the percentage of inmates whose most serious sentencing offense is a drug offense has quadrupled to around 20 percent of Colorado's prison population. Drug offenders are by far the single largest category of new admissions to Colorado prisons at around 23 percent of annual admissions.

There are more drug offenders in Colorado prisons today than the entire prison population 25 years ago when the state's inmate population was around 3,500.

Given this, you might think a drug-free Colorado is close at hand. You would be wrong.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's 2008 State Fact Sheet for Colorado notes that heroin is not only "available in the major metropolitan areas of Colorado," but "various law enforcement and treatment indicators suggest that heroin use and availability may be on the rise in Colorado." As for cocaine, "Enforcement activities reflect a steady supply of cocaine coming into and through Colorado."

Crack cocaine is "available in the larger metropolitan areas of Colorado, generally in street level amounts." And marijuana, according to DEA, "is available throughout Colorado."

One of the main policy goals driving the mass incarceration of drug offenders -- the supply-side strategy of disrupting illicit drug availability -- is a long-running failure.

It costs around $31,000 per year to keep someone in prison. A June 30, 2008 snapshot of the state's prison population showed just under 4,500 drug offenders. So Colorado's failed attempt to incarcerate away the drug issue costs taxpayers roughly $140 million per year just for prison beds.

Colorado's often irrational drug policies are a major diving force behind decades of run-away prison spending that has pushed Colorado's corrections budget from less than 3 percent to almost 9 percent of general fund spending, or from around $97 million to over $675 million of general fund appropriation. For years, budget hawks in the legislature have turned a blind eye to one of the most extreme spending sprees in state history. It is well past time to bring prison spending under the same annual fiscal scrutiny as the rest of the budget.

Overuse of criminal sanctions for drug offenses also inflicts huge indirect economic costs on the state, because drug offenders who are given a felony conviction (note that in Colorado, simply being in possession of an amount of illegal drugs weighing less than an American nickel is a felony crime) will have a much harder time getting jobs and becoming productive, tax-paying citizens in the future.

A core problem is the irrationality of treating drug offenses like violent and property crimes.

For instance, incarcerate a serial burglar or strong-arm robber and not only is a string of crimes solved, but untold numbers of future crimes are prevented (at least for as long as that criminal is incarcerated).

But the imprisonment of one drug dealer (or even an entire network) only temporarily disrupts the flow of illegal drugs. As soon as one supplier is gone, another quickly moves in to take his place. Basic economic laws of supply and demand say that as long as there is a demand for a product, a market will make that product available.

Using incarceration to try and halt the availability of drugs can only be achieved by imprisoning every drug user and addict (who constitute the majority of the small-time dealers) and everyone willing to break the law in return for financial reward (dealers in the upper levels of the drug world).

The cost to taxpayers of Colorado's failed experiment in the mass incarceration of drug offenders has simply become unsustainable. Fiscal conservatives, both Republican and Democrat, should be urging the CCJJ to present legislative recommendations to significantly pare back the War on Drugs in Colorado.

Mike Krause directs the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute