Attorney Sean McAllister speaks about drug policy reform at the Lunch with Lawmakers session

The heart of drug policy reform largely boils down to numbers for Sean McAllister, one of the state’s leading lawyers on the subject.

The prison population exploded in Colorado at the time drug penalties for possession became much more strict, he said. It went from about 4,000 inmates in the 1980s to 20,000 in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the addiction rate for marijuana is 6 percent to 9 percent; alcohol is 17 percent; cocaine is 30 percent and meth is around 50 percent.

McAllister, a Denver attorney who specializes in civil rights and medical marijuana cases, helped draft a 2006 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana possession of under an ounce – it failed on a 59 percent to 41 percent vote – and is involved in this year’s marijuana legalization ballot measure.

He was the featured speaker at today’s Lunch with Lawmakers presentation in the Tivoli Student Union. About 25 people attended the event, which was co-sponsored by CU Denver Student Life.

“What are we doing spending hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide and certainly millions of dollars in Colorado attacking this drug that by itself is benign?” McAllister said. “There is nothing about marijuana use itself that is criminal. What is criminal is if someone smokes marijuana and mistreats their kids or smokes marijuana and drives their car. Those things are already illegal. We do not need to make possession of marijuana illegal. This is my personal belief.”

While he’s not a member of the Legislature, McAllister pointed out that a person needs only to be interested in a subject and – through the ballot initiative process – can become citizen lawmakers.

He became interested in drug policy reform because he views the United States’ war on drugs as “an embarrasment” and the prison overcrowding problem a waste of resources. He founded a nonprofit that’s dedicated to the issue of drug reform, and he serves on the drug policy task force of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

In general, McAllister said he believes that drug laws are too strict with too much emphasis on punishment and prison rather than on treatment and prevention.

“To change laws and to change the way things are you have to be well-educated,” he said. “My experience started by volunteering, so I would encourage people to volunteer for nonprofits and get involved with organizations that are doing the things you care about.”

He said the requirements for 86,000 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot make it harder and more expensive to get measures before voters. The network that deals with drug policy – district attorneys, police, probation officers and other professionals – is “at the end of what the formal system is really willing to do,” McAllister said.

“So I think the great thing in Colorado is you do have the ballot initiatives,” he said. “To go farther on some of these reforms we are going to have to go back to the ballot.”

This year’s ballot measure on marijuana, if it gets sufficient signatures, would legalize possession of less than an ounce for people ages 21 and over; tax and regulate dispensaries, similar to the setup for medical marijuana; and allow in-home cultivation of up to six plants.

McAllister said the estimated savings on law enforcement and the revenues generated from the tax would result in $80 million to $100 million in new revenue each year. “When you live in a state that has a $300 million to $500 million budget deficit every year, you’re talking about a third to a quarter of your state budget deficit being erased right away.”

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