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Colorados Drug Problem

The uphill battle to reform the states archaic drug policy



Five years ago, Sabra Erving spent her time in Colorado Springs hotel rooms selling and using crack. Today, the 43-year-old is drug-free and in her second year of college studying business administration.

Erving, now living in Denver, says an intensive drug rehabilitation program gave her a new chance at life, and she is doing everything she can to make the most of it.

"Life is serious," she said. "I don't have a bunch of time to lollygag. I've wasted half of it already."

But Erving was one of a relatively few lucky addicts with access to such programs in Colorado, which, ranks first per capita in marijuana use nationally, second in severity of substance abuse problems -- and 49th in money spent on drug rehabilitation programs.

Colorado spends less than $50 million each year on drug treatment and prevention programs, most of which comes from federal block grants. Only $13.6 million is allocated for treatment and prevention from the state's general fund, a fraction compared to most other states.

In addition, Colorado is one of only nine states in which more than half of those in prison on drug charges were arrested for drug possession. It is one of only three that refuses to allow Medicaid coverage for drug treatment.

"We're at the bottom of the bottom," said Christie Donner, state coordinator for the Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a Boulder-based nonprofit that works on prisoner rights issues.

Meanwhile, the state's prison population has exploded. Over the past decade, the number of people sent to prison in Colorado for drug offenses has increased more than 350 percent, with drug offenders the fastest growing and largest category of felon in prison. In 1985, there were 3,637 adults in prison in Colorado. In January 2001, that figure had risen to more than 16,500. The adult prison population is projected to grow another 49.5 percent to 24,539 by January 2007.

The cost to taxpayers has been substantial. In fiscal year 1987--1988, the state allocated $86.1 million for prisons. By fiscal year 2000--2001 the prison budget had jumped to $483 million -- an increase of nearly 600 percent.

Meanwhile other Western states -- many of them under the leadership of Republican governors -- are re-examining drug policy and have begun to reform their laws policy. Most notably, New Mexico's Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, is advocating an aggressive drug policy reform effort through the introduction of eight separate bills in the 2001--2002 legislative session.

However, Colorado is notably far behind the curve. But that may be changing.

Three bills will be introduced in January that could create subtle to dramatic changes in Colorado's approach to illegal drug abuse. Although the bills have varying levels of support from state politicos, observers say they will likely face a chilly reception from Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

Long road to recovery

Erving, mother of two grown children and one teenager, doesn't remember when she became a crack addict.

"Sometimes I sit back and think, 'When did it happen? When did I get sprung on it?' " she said.

A friend of hers used to come over and smoke crack in Erving's living room, and once in a while she'd let Erving take a hit. Before she realized what she was in for, Erving was addicted.

"[My friend] was saying, 'You better go get this, 'cause you're messing off my stuff,'" she said.

So she did. Before long, she was selling crack, too, and by 1989 had been arrested for the first time. She was sentenced to probation, but she kept using crack and by 1991 was sentenced to prison.

That's when she got smart, she said.

"While you're in prison, it was a good lesson for me how to sell drugs better and use," she says.

What she didn't learn was how to deal with her addiction.

"They didn't have any type of treatment plan. You did group classes because that was part of the program of being in prison," Erving said.

The classes included cognitive thinking skills, but didn't focus on addiction or its underlying causes. With her children -- then ages 12, 10 and 9 -- shuffling between grandparents, Erving served about 14 months of a three-year sentence before being released to a halfway house.

She was clean -- for a while. Trouble with her youngest daughter -- who had a baby at age 15 and was arrested on gang-related charges and sent to prison as an adult at age 16 -- drove her over the edge. She began using and dealing -- and getting busted -- again.

Erving remembers the night she was arrested for the third time quite clearly. She'd rented a hotel room to deal from, a trick she'd learned in prison. When a male friend showed up to deal, too, she left that room and got another.

"When I was dealing, I didn't have a lot of noise and partying like guys do when they're selling drugs," she said.

When she came back to the room a short while later, police were there and had already arrested her friend. In his pocket, they'd found a prescription pill bottle with her name on it -- and several rocks of crack inside.

It was Erving's third strike, and Colorado laws demanded a tough sentence. The courts offered her a deal -- 98 years in prison or mandatory rehabilitation.

Erving chose rehab.

Whereas prison had felt like a slumber party, "It was easy to do time" -- rehab was difficult.

"It was pretty tough," she said. "When I first went in, they were talking about that you needed to change, but I didn't think I needed to change."

The El Paso County in-patient treatment program that she was assigned to, CENIKOR, involved very structured living. Residents were required to be up and working their assigned jobs by 7:30 a.m. Erving met with a counselor twice a week and participated in group therapy sessions almost daily.

The program came with a twist: It was run by former drug addicts.

"It wasn't like I can get anything over on them. It wasn't like I could manipulate or pull something slick on them. It was like, 'We were all drug addicts. We know what drug addicts do,'" she said.

In this setting, Erving says she was finally forced to face and cope with the feelings behind her addiction -- worries about her children, particularly her daughter in prison, and intense feelings of guilt for her role as their mother.

While that helped her change her life, empathy with other drug addicts played a key role as well. Face to face with their suffering, Erving saw the misery she had contributed to as a crack dealer.

"What made me change the most and made me see selling drugs was ugly was seeing some of those women coming in skinny as a stick, their eyes bugging out," she said.

Erving remembered the drug-addicted mother of five who lived next door to her and gave Erving food stamps for crack. Although Erving says she used the stamps to buy food for the woman's children, she claims the mother traded the food for crack with other dealers.

Erving has been clean for five years now. She holds a full-time job, is studying for her degree, and takes classes at the African-American Leadership Institute. She has many interests now, whereas before she was interested only in crack.

"I'm very grateful," she said. "Treatment helps. I think it's the best thing for drug problems." Were it not for rehab, Erving believes that she'd still be doing drugs.

The six-cent Band-Aid

The Colorado Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division (ADAD) estimates that only 20 percent of Coloradans who need drug treatment receive it. Others place that estimate closer to 50 percent.

A recent Columbia University study found that Colorado ranked lowest among states in the proportion of money spent on dealing with the consequences of drug abuse compared to dollars spent on prevention and treatment. For every $100 spent on dealing with the social, medical and criminal damage caused by drug addiction, Colorado spends only 6 on prevention and treatment. Nationwide the average is $3.70 per $100.

What money it does spend on treatment outside the prison system is funneled through managed care organizations into community treatment programs in six regions in the state. The types of services are very limited, however, and people are often turned away for lack of space. Rural communities in particular have few options.

"We are lacking resources and sufficient funding for drug treatment," said Flavia Lewis, executive director for the Mile High Council. "We really seem not to be doing a good job for people who have human services needs and can't pay for it or don't have insurance."

The Mile High Council provides evaluation, intervention, and 24-hour referrals. The Council also acts as a parole provider and runs the SISTERS Project, short for Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery, at the Denver County Jail. The 45-day program, which provides drug-addicted women inmates with intensive drug treatment and therapy, is the only program of its scope and length in the region. However, the program can take only 17 women at a time, and 45 days isn't always enough time to get women back on their feet.

"I'd give anything if that could be longer," Lewis says.

Women in the program are in drug treatment daily from 8:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., often working through emotional issues while receiving therapy.

"Many of them are trauma survivors," Lewis said. "They need mental health care, counseling and education."

Surveys of SISTERS Project participants indicate 95 percent are victims of sexual violence. Lewis also says sexual abuse plays a role in drug addiction in men.

Mile High Council tries to provide a continuum of care for women who leave the program, making recommendations to the court as to what's needed next.

But the money isn't always there.

"I absolutely believe with my whole heart that if we had the funding and continuity to provide the services people need, we'd have a much better opportunity for helping people manage their lives," Lewis says. "Honestly, if we could just get our resources together."

Carmelita Muiz, executive director of the Colorado Association of Alcohol and Drug Service Providers, says adolescents and women in particular have trouble finding treatment.

"The sad story is, most people find out they can get help through the criminal justice system faster," Muiz said.

But in prison, there's still no guarantee of treatment. DOC spends $7 million each year on treatment, $1 million of which is federal money. While the state's prisons offer the usual assortment of 12-step groups, bona fide treatment often entails a waiting list, and not everyone gets in -- or gets the kind of treatment they need.

"I don't think we have treatment on demand, and I don't think the community has treatment on demand," says Brian Burnett, acting executive director of the DOC.

Some state facilities have large-scale in-house drug and alcohol treatment options that are showing promising results. Inmates who've completed these programs have shown one-eighth the recidivism rate of inmates who have not, Burnett says.

"The numbers are young, but they are promising," he said.

The results have led the Legislature to establish new prison treatment programs, he says.

Even with new programs, treatment advocates estimate 11,500 adults in Colorado need treatment and cannot get it.

Failing to address the disease is costly in human terms and financially, Muiz says. Money is channeled into foster care for the children of drug addicts and Medicaid to cover drug-abuse-related health care problems like heart and liver disease.

"It's taken such a toll on our state budget already that we can't afford not to look at this issue and spend the money to save the money," Muiz says. "What I think we've lost in this whole thing is that [addiction] is a recurring disease."

Proponents of treatment-based intervention point out that incarceration costs taxpayers $26,000 per inmate per year, much more expensive than the estimated $1,500 required annually per person for treatment. They point to a California study which showed that $7 is saved for every dollar spent on drug abuse prevention and treatment. From a fiscal point of view alone, treatment is the better option, they say.

Voters seem to agree with them. In a poll conducted by the Denver-based pollster Ridder-Braden this fall, researchers found 83 percent of Colorado voters believe the government's war on drugs is a failure. In addition, 73 percent favor treatment over incarceration. Almost 60 percent believe drug abuse should be treated as a health problem. The findings were generally consistent across party lines and social demographics.

"Overwhelmingly, Colorado voters believe that the current war on drugs is a costly failure," said Christie Donner.

The Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, under its former name, The Prison Moratorium Coalition, commissioned the survey with funding from the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.

"Clearly, the poll indicates that voters want Colorado to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Western states like Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and California, which have realized that treatment, education and prevention are much more effective and cost-effective strategies than incarceration," Donner said.

Put 'bad people' in jail

"It's very bleak here," Muiz says. "And the thing that's most interesting, and the reason we focus on the Legislature so much, is that they're kind of behind the times."

Advocates of the public health approach to drugs say polls like the one conducted by Ridder/Braden show the public has begun to see the drug issue in a different light. Elected officials, concerned with looking tough on crime, are out of step with voters, they say.

"I think it's hard for them to believe they're out of step because they keep getting re-elected," said former state Sen. Dorothy Rupert (D-Boulder), who fought numerous battles in the Legislature over prison-related issues. "It's a big lack of courage collectively. There are individuals, including the governor, who come from a very punitive position."

Now is the time to change this, Rupert says.

"Gov. Owens does not subscribe to what he considers a myth -- the myth that prisons are full of first-time drug offenders," said Dick Wadhams, Gov. Owens' press secretary.

Wadhams says it's actually quite difficult to end up in prison in Colorado, and that most people who end up in prison on drug charges have criminal records that include offenses against people and property. Incarcerating these people has led to the lowest crime rate in Colorado in 20 years, he says.

"There is a direct correlation between the number of people who've been incarcerated and the crime rate," Wadhams says. "When you put bad people in jail who've committed crimes, crime goes down."

But not everyone is sure the state is keeping only "bad people" behind bars.

"We have a number of people who are incarcerated because they have mental health and medical problems that haven't been dealt with," said Rep. Penfield Tate (D-Denver). "We don't know how many lives are wasted because we fail to address this issue."

It is, says Tate, a situation of "ongoing personal tragedy" brought on in part by lawmakers' perceived political need to be tough on crime.

"They're more confident with incarceration because they want to say they were tough even though they haven't corrected [the problem]," Tate said.

Observers say Owens has acted against most attempts at drug policy reform.

Last year a bill carried by Rep. Kay Alexander (R-Montrose), which would have provided Medicaid coverage for drug treatment and would have required private health insurance plans that cover drug treatment to cover court-mandated treatment, was killed in the House Appropriations Committee. Muiz, who helped on the bill, says she believes Owens wanted the money associated with the bill for highways and asked members of the GOP-dominated committee to kill the bill at the last minute.

Also last year, a bill sponsored by Tate that would have reduced the length of sentences for simple possession and would have prohibited the exportation and importation of prisoners into private prisons was also killed in a compromise that established a committee to examine the issue of drug sentences.

The Interim Criminal Justice Committee on Sentencing Reform began meeting in August and produced a bill, carried by state Sen. Ken Gordon (D-Denver), that would reduce sentences for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs and channel the money saved on incarceration into drug treatment. The bill is expected to, by the third year, save the state 100 prison beds and $2.6 million.

Although Gordon's bill, the most conservative of the three, has the support of the state's powerful district attorney lobby, it could face an uphill battle with Owens.

"He'll take a good look at the Gordon bill," Wadhams said. "He has an open mind in discussing this, but he also has some very strong feelings about the issue."

Gordon's bill has drawn gentle criticism from the treatment community, which was not involved in crafting the proposed legislation.

"We're very encouraged that current drug policy is being discussed at the legislative level, because it's crucial," Donner said, noting, however, that 100 beds does not represent "meaningful reform."

"At this point, our attitude is 'anything will help,' and we see this as an opportunity to create new opportunities for community treatment," Muiz said.

Gordon says he's not critical of Gov. Owens or anyone else and is just hopeful that his fellow lawmakers and the governor will vote for his bill.

"I'm just glad we've got what we've got," he says.

In the end, Gordon says, he hopes the added money for treatment will save lives.

Rep. Alexander will return in January to fight for last year's bill again. Because the state already spends so much on medical care for drug addicts through Medicaid, adding drug addiction to Medicaid coverage is expected to save money in the end, proponents of her bill say. Also, the bill will require private health insurance companies that cover drug treatment to cover court-ordered treatment, something they currently do not do in Colorado.

Rep. Andrew Romanov (D-Denver) will carry the third drug-related bill, which focuses on treatment for welfare recipients. The bill would extend the 16-month limit on welfare for people in drug treatment and would provide treatment and mental health care for those individuals. Sen. Bob Hagedorn (D-Aurora) will carry the bill in the Senate.

A different approach

According to Muiz, substance abuse problems are the primary reason people fail to make the transition from welfare to productive employment.

While these bills and the changes they will initiate are welcome by treatment advocates and prisoner-rights groups, some are quick to point out that other states have taken much bigger steps toward drug policy reform.

In 1996, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, the Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act, which requires that people convicted of first- and second-time drug possession charges receive treatment rather than imprisonment. The law funds treatment and drug education programs through a percentage of money generated by alcohol taxes. In the first year, $3.1 million was spent on probation-based treatment programs with 2,600 additional treatment slots being created. To date, three out of five probationers successfully completed treatment and three out of four probationers placed in treatment remained drug free. The state's new program saved more than $2.5 million in its first year.

In the November 2000 election, Californians passed Proposition 36, which requires treatment -- not incarceration -- for drug possession or use. The initiative provides $120 million a year to pay for expanded drug treatment, along with job and literacy training and family counseling. The "treatment first" measure is expected to divert 24,000 nonviolent offenders and 12,000 parole violators into treatment programs each year, saving more than $200 million in incarceration costs, according to a California legislative analysis.

In New Mexico, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson's 2001--2002 broad legislative session reform package consists of bills that would provide treatment on demand, as well as legalizing possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. In addition, Johnson is proposing to reduce penalties for first- and second-time offenders, legalize marijuana for medial use, change the habitual offender (three-strikes) laws to exclude drug crimes and legalize needle exchange at pharmacies. His proposals also include changing drug-asset forfeiture laws to require a conviction before a person's property was forfeited -- and requiring the government to prove by "clear and convincing" evidence that the asset was either used during the commission of a drug offense or was obtained through proceeds from illegal drug activity.

To promote reform on this scale is perceived by Colorado lawmakers to be political suicide, Donner says. But the measure shouldn't be driven by political expediency, she says, but rather by what works.

"I'm a big fan of looking at policy through the lens of what is effective," Donner said. "We're not solving the underlying problem. We've tried the experiment. The experiment has failed, and it's time for us to find a policy that's more effective."

Home from a full day of work and preparing to study for class, Sabra Erving sees it this way: "It's really sad that the system doesn't recognize that a person has a problem. You want to lock me up forever, but you don't want to see what is going on."

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