Colorado is doing something constructive with the millions in marijuana revenue it’s raking in annually.
The Department of Human Services and Governor John Hickenlooper have requested an annual allocation of more than $6 million from the state’s marijuana-tax cash fund for a new program that would offer help to chronic drug users instead of criminalizing and jailing them.
Art Way, senior director for criminal-justice reform and Colorado director with the national Drug Policy Alliance, who worked closely with state agencies in crafting the proposal, believes the impact of this approach is potentially revolutionary for people struggling with addictions to heroin and other heavy narcotics.
In fact, Way believes the project could be a game changer.
“Marijuana tax revenue and marijuana legalization will fund broader drug-policy purposes and drug-policy concerns that have long had more of an impact on society, both from a human perspective and a fiscal perspective,” said Way, who believes mass incarceration and the failed War on Drugs has had devastating effects on society in the United States.
He also believes that if such a program can get underway anywhere in the United States, Colorado is the obvious place to start.
After all, newly released figures show that weed dispensaries sold $1.3 billion worth of recreational and medical pot in 2016. So the tax money is there.
“I’m starting to realize that reform can almost fund itself. This is how we envisioned marijuana legalization—to be able to assist larger drug-reform purposes,” said Way.
Way explained the details of the program to Westword. It involves law enforcement-assisted diversion, known by the acronym LEAD. Instead of the police arresting low-level drug users or sellers, the officers can ask whether they’d like to be part of this program.
“There would be no booking into local city jails [where] low-level drug offenders are the primary reason many of our jails are operating at or above capacity,” explained Way.
“It’s a way for police to be involved in dealing with this issue from a public-health perspective and not from the standpoint of morality and judgment,” he added.
The program will focus on harm reduction, not just abstinence, as a way of stabilizing what Way calls “frequent flyers”—not casual drug users—but rather people who are often homeless and typically have co-occurring mental-health problems.
“The program changes the police’s rules of engagement with this demographic, and it also increases the public-health and treatment infrastructure within the community,” he said.
Instead of jailing people with mental issues, the program will seek help for them.
This concept is in keeping with Drug Policy Alliance’s mission, which envisions a society where the use and regulation of drugs are “grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, in which people are no longer punished for what they put into their own bodies but only for crimes committed against others.”