Blog Post

Colorado Town Considers Abandoned Prison for Marijuana Cultivation Facility

Art Way

Is the recent effort in Brush, CO to turn an abandoned prison into a marijuana cultivation facility a sign of our drug policy future?

Private prisons are closing all over the country and in places like California, Washington and Colorado, real estate markets are impacted by local marijuana industries.  The situation in Brush brings the two recent phenomena together in a story of incarceration to legalization.

Over the last 40 years, marijuana prohibition and the system of mass incarceration represent two huge investments by the federal government.   There would be no mass incarceration as we know it if not for punitive and scientifically skewed drug policy of marijuana prohibition.  

President Obama and Attorney General Holder are realizing that this investment in mass incarceration has done more harm than good.  This is especially so concerning young African-American males, a demographic the two are somewhat familiar with.

In addition to embracing broader sentencing reforms, the administration has offered cautious support for removing minor marijuana possession from state criminal codes altogether.  In doing so - in Colorado and Washington particularly - the Obama Administration has simultaneously and cautiously supported the regulation of two burgeoning non-medical marijuana industries. 

Criminal justice reformers have long questioned the wisdom of mass incarceration, and many know the role marijuana has played over the years.  It appears the efforts and wisdom of criminal justice reformers is beginning to pay off among civilians and top level decision makers.  To accompany the closures of prisons nationwide, institutions such as the US Sentencing Commission, are brokering the release of upwards of 50,000 nonviolent drug offenders from federal prison.

If mass incarceration was compared to the financial tech bubble, one could argue the bubble is about to pop.

One question that now presents itself is how damaging will the end of mass incarceration be to those dependent on and invested in its continuation?

The idea to change an abandoned prison to a marijuana cultivation facility is one small example that says “all is not lost.”  Of course, this goes well beyond prisons and marijuana.

If our country invested in a public health approach to drug use overall and specifically brought marijuana above ground to study, tax and regulate, the losses incurred by changing course would be minimal.

All we need is a change of policy

Many prisons and detention facilities could be used for mental health, short term housing for the homeless and drug treatment facilities.  Prisons have already become our de facto and highly-inefficient mental health and drug rehab facilities.

With a public health approach to drug policy, police can be on the frontlines helping to provide services to those who are a danger to self and society instead of being infantry in a system of mass incarceration. 

Let’s envision it, we’ve already built it.

Art Way is the Colorado senior drug policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

View more blog posts.