Colorado lawmakers’ long-running devotion to the disastrous “War on Drugs” has helped to jam Colorado prisons full at a huge cost to taxpayers. In the meantime, illicit drugs remain readily available in Colorado.

Maybe it’s time to try something different.

The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), tasked with making recommendations to the legislature to reform Colorado’s sentencing and parole policies, has broken down into several sub-groups, including a Drug Policy Task Force to take a hard look at the state’s previously untouchable drug laws and policies. It’s been a long time coming.

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., which created both numerous new drug offenses, and sentencing enhancements for those offenses.

And the result?

In the last 20 years, the percentage of inmates whose most serious sentencing offense is a drug offense has quadrupled to around 20 percent of Colorado’s total prison population. Drug offenders now constitute the single largest category of people admitted to Colorado prisons, around 23 percent of total admissions in 2008. There are more drug offenders in prison today than the entire prison population 25 years ago when the entire inmate population was around 3,500.

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

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2008 State Fact Sheet for Colorado, 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.”

In other words, 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 an average of $31,000 per year to keep someone in Colorado prison. A June 30, 2008, snapshot of the state’s prison population showed just under 4,500 drug offenders. So the current cost to taxpayers of Colorado’s attempt to incarcerate away the drug issue is roughly $140 million per year.

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 will have a much harder time getting jobs and becoming productive, tax-paying citizens in the future.

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 consequences to taxpayers of Colorado’s failed experiment in the mass incarceration of drug offenders have simply become fiscally unsustainable. So while the Drug Policy Task Force clearly has its work cut out for itself, it is well past time to significantly re-think drug policy in Colorado.

Mike Krause directs the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute.

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