Colorado May Use Pot Dollars To End Jailing For Psych Holds

By Kelly Burch 03/13/17

In Colorado, a person in a psychiatric crisis can be involuntarily jailed for up to 24 hours. 

Man holding a marijuana leaf over a lot of cash.

Colorado legislators are considering a bill that would use $9.5 million raised from the taxing of marijuana sales to end the practice of holding people who are a danger to themselves or others in jail, rather than a psychiatric facility. 

Colorado is one of only six states where a person having a psychiatric crisis who is at risk of committing suicide or harming others can be involuntarily held in a jail cell for up to 24 hours. The new legislation would change that by facilitating better access to mental health treatment centers. 

“It’s a massive injustice,” Democratic state Senator Daniel Kagan, a sponsor of the bill, told The Denver Post. “It only makes a person’s mental health far, far worse to be not only in a state of crisis but now in jail.”

The legislation calls for a multifaceted approach to providing care for people in a mental health crisis. This includes having mobile crisis teams—made up of a law enforcement officer and behavioral health specialist—who would respond to crisis calls. The teams would work together to deescalate situations and get the individual into medical care rather than jail. 

The plan also calls for more crisis stabilization centers, especially in rural areas of the state. “You can’t do away with using jails without having other options,” said Republican state senator and bill sponsor, John Cooke.

Currently, mental health holds in Colorado allow people who are a danger to themselves or others to be held involuntarily for up to 72 hours, although a longer stay can be ordered after a psychiatric evaluation. Under current Colorado law, a person can be held in jail for up to 24 hours during that time before being transferred to a medical facility for an evaluation. 

One major barrier to timely evaluations in Colorado is the fact that healthcare centers can be hours-long drives from rural communities. For example, in Grand Junction in western Colorado, which has just 11 contracted mental health beds, it is a four-hour drive to the nearest crisis stabilization center, according to The Denver Post.

Colorado has a higher than average rate of mental illness, and jails are frequently used in crises, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette. One county held 117 people in jail between January 2015 and April 2016 because no psychiatric beds were available. The state also has the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.