Colorado’s War on Drugs

The impact of drugs has hit Colorado hard with staggering statistics which place Colorado high on the list of adults incarcerated due to drug related charges. The city of Denver, accounted for 308 of 100,000 residents incarcerated for drugs. This percentage is more than “twice the national average of 125 per 100,000 residents. (ONDCP, 2005) Drug offenses in Colorado are on the rise by 476% which is the largest and fastest growing category among those who have been imprisoned. (Colorado Justice reform Coalition, 2002)

In Colorado the incarceration rates in 2002 for those arrested for drug charges were at 3,691 people in prison. The numbers can also be broken down further by sex and type of crime. Females who were charged with non violent drug crimes comprised 35% of the prison population. Males who were charged with non violent drug crimes comprised only 23% of the prison population in Colorado. (Colorado Justice Reform Coalition, 2002).

The cost of keeping drug offenders in prison far exceeds the use of treatment or other outpatient therapy. The State of Colorado spent more than $101 million dollars in 2002 to keep people in prison. The harsh reality is that 50% of those who were convicted were sent to prison for simple possession charges. (Colorado Justice Reform Coalition, 2002). The sad truth of the matter is that all the money Colorado keeps spending on the war against drugs is not helping. Worse yet, Colorado ranked as the 5th highest state for dependence and abuse; this was out of all 50 states. (Colorado Justice Reform Coalition, 2002).

The problem lies within finding an affordable solution which will actually decrease the wasteful spending. According to The Colorado Justice Reform Coalition, it is estimated that treatment for drug abuse is far more affordable than many people realize. The average cost for educational based treatment can be as low as $400.00 per year up to $20,000 for a residential treatment center. This is of course in comparison with the $28,000+ which it costs to house one prison inmate per year. (Colorado Justice Reform Coalition, 2002).

In 2001, The Colorado Justice Reform Coalition polled Colorado voters about their opinions on the war on drugs and the drug policies. It was revealed that 73% of Coloradans believe that the war on drugs is a failure and wanted to see the money re-directed into educational, prevention and treatment programs.

There is no clear solution but there must be other options besides wasting more of the taxpayer’s money. I had no idea the tremendous amount of money that is being wasted on a program which is apparently not working. I have three suggestions for improvement within the system that has continually let us down in Colorado.

My first suggestion is to spend more money on educational services which will do more than just talk about the consequences of drug use, but will also help to prevent people from using drugs. DARE is a great program, but it seems that it is only dealt with in the schools once or twice a year. The DARE program should begin teaching children at a very young age about why they should not do drugs or associate with people who do. Although a lot of this comes down to parental involvement. The parents should be welcomed to attend the program with their child so that the parent is informed of what is being said. It would be even better if the program were held at a convenient time such as in the evening so that parents would have the chance to attend. I have not heard of a program like this in my area but it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Children tend to look up to their parents as role models and therefore if they see that their parents support the program against using drugs they may take it to heart and in the future make smart decisions.

The next suggestion I have is to use treatment before incarceration. The addiction to illegal drugs is a serious problem, and does not appear to be lessening. It is clogging up our prisons and wasting millions of taxpayer’s money. The money would be much better spent on viable options that can help prevent and treat drug users. As mentioned before the use of therapy is less costly than incarceration. The court should sentence the first time offender to either an outpatient treatment or a residential treatment center for a minimum of 3-6 months. The issue of cost would definitely be a concern unless the money used to maintain incarcerated prisoners was somehow redirected towards therapeutic rehabilitation.

For example, every person who was charged with a drug related crime in 2002 came to a total of 3,691 and cost the state of Colorado approximately $28k per person per year, which comes out to approximately $103,348,000.00 dollars. If every one of these people had been placed into residential treatment for one full year at $20k per person per year it would cost the state $73,820,000.00. This is a huge difference in funds. It comes out to a difference of $29,528,000.00. This money saved could actually change lives and save the state millions, and possibly billions of dollars over an extended span of time.

The last suggestion that I have is a follow up program for those involved in the therapeutic rehabilitation. This could be a case manger that is available to the participant throughout the course of treatment and after the treatment. The case manager would be available to help the participant find local charities for help if needed such as food banks or churches. It could also be a helping hand with locating an affordable child care provider for a family, or assistance for single parents.

The program could be specialized to the needs of the participants. What I mean by this is, if there is a need for referring people to agencies that can provide free or low cost services, or community programs that people could become involved with. The funding could come from part of the excess funds which would be saved by eliminating the costs associated with sending first time offenders to prison.

It was quite alarming to me as a citizen of Colorado, that we are wasting millions of dollars on an effort that is not working. I am not suggesting giving up on the program I am simply suggesting that we should utilize the money in a different way to try and rehabilitate people instead of using prison as a quick fix. The truth of the matter is that there is no quick fix. This is an ongoing problem that we will be dealing with on a state basis as well as a national basis. We are all in this war together.

Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition: Drug Policy (2002) retrieved on September 12, 2005 from:
Office of National Drug Control Policy: Drug Policy Information Clearinghouse; Denver, Colorado Feb. (2005) retrieved on September 12, 2005 from:

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