New Drug Laws under Utah Code Section 58-37-8

If you were charged with a drug crime in Utah, you should be aware of recent changes to Utah's statutes for controlled substances. In 2015, judges in the state courts throughout Utah started handing down sentences in some types of drug crimes that include a greater emphasis on treatment instead of incarceration in jail or prison.

The new drug laws in Utah were mandated by HB348 (often called the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative”). The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is based on recommendations by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ). The new legislation was approved by the Utah Legislature and signed into law on March 31, 2015.

The new drug laws in Utah were mandated by HB348 (often called the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative”). The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is based on recommendations by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ). The new legislation was approved by the Utah Legislature and signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert. The new legislation took effect on October 1, 2015.

One section of House Bill 248 is entirely devoted to drug possession. The revised statute is still located at Utah Code § 58-37-8. The reforms for drug crimes related to the possession of controlled substances were designed to help non-violent offenders become law-abiding members of their communities.

The reforms were intended to save taxpayer money and reserve harsher penalties for violent criminals. The reforms also give an innocent person more leverage in plea negotiations when they are facing a misdemeanor charge instead of more serious felony penalties. Additionally, the new legislation allows defendants convicted of controlled substance offenses to retain their driver’s licenses if they participate in a substance abuse treatment program.


Downgrading Felony Drug-Possession for Personal Use to a Misdemeanor

Perhaps the biggest impact of House Bill 348 is the fact that the new legislation makes Schedule I or II controlled substances, which include drugs like methamphetamines, oxycontin, and heroin, a class A misdemeanors instead of a felony for the first two convictions. Class A misdemeanors carry a statutory maximum sentence of up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

A third offense can be charged as a third-degree felony. 

Prior to October 1, 2015, a person convicted of drug possession for personal use (simple possession) could be charged with a second-degree felony (one to 15 years) or a first-degree felony (five years to life). Now those offenses will be charged as a class A misdemeanor with significantly lower maximum statutory penalties.

A person’s charges are only increased to a felony after a third conviction. House Bill 348 did not change Utah’s drug laws for those accused of selling or trafficking drugs.

Other drug crimes for distribution, production, manufacturing, sales, and organized criminal activity are still classified as serious felony offenses. 


Downgrading Marijuana Possession Charges to a Class B Misdemeanor

Under the new version of Utah Code § 58-37-8(2)(d), a violation of Subsection (2)(a)(i) for drug possession of certain substances such as marijuana or cannabis in an amount less than 100 pounds is a Class B misdemeanor. The statutory maximum penalties for a Class B misdemeanor including up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Marijuana possession is enhanced to a Class A misdemeanor for a third conviction. 

Therefore, the new legislation effectively eliminated the weight thresholds for marijuana offenses and reclassifies marijuana possession (including conduct previously classified as a third-degree felony or a Class A misdemeanor) to a Class B misdemeanor. Possession of marijuana in amounts of 100 pounds or more is still a second-degree felony. 


Downgrading 241 Misdemeanors to Infractions

The new legislation also turned 241 misdemeanor crimes into infractions. The penalties for criminal traffic offenses such as reckless driving and DUI remained unchanged under the new legislation. 


Reducing the Prison Population for Non-violent Drug Crimes

Utah's prison population has increased dramatically over the past decade. In fact, it grew by more than 18 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. 

The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) believes that the reforms in Utah’s drug laws could save taxpayers more than $500 million over the next twenty years by avoiding the need to fund more prison beds. The state prisons in Utah currently house close to 6,700 inmates. More than 80 percent of the inmates in the state prison have a substance abuse problem.

House Bill 348 requires tracking of inmates and identifies who has a substance abuse addiction and/or a mental health issue and helps get them treatment. 


Reducing the Area for a “Drug-Free Zone” in Utah

Before House Bill 348 took effect on October 1, 2015, a 1,000-foot radius around all schools and other facilities where children often go, such as churches and parks, were drug-free zones. House Bill 348 decreased “drug-free zone” from 1,000 feet around schools, churches, parks and other facilities where children may be, to 100 feet.

Some of those areas are considered “drug-free zones” only during operational hours. Drug-free zones were also amended to criminalize only those with drugs and the intent to distribute, rather than mere possession of a controlled substance. 


Requires the Utah Sentencing Commission to Change the Way Criminal History Affects the Sentence Length

House Bill 348 changes the way criminal history affects sentence length by reducing the number of points in a criminal history score. The criminal history score is a measure of prior criminal involvement for the purposes of determining sentencing guidelines and now counts only misdemeanors classified as a Class A in the score.

The new legislation also eliminates from the criminal history score factors that are not major indicators of risk of reoffending, such as crimes committed more than 10 years in the past. Most importantly, House Bill 348 eliminates the double counting of factors such as prior supervision, residential placement, and failure to report.


More Funding for Treatment instead of Incarceration for Drug Crimes 

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative passed in 2015 provides opportunities for parolees and probationers to reduce their time on supervised release. The reforms require the Board of Pardons and Parole to grant a reduction of at least four months when prisoners successfully complete a priority in their case plan.


Additional Resources

Senate Bill 119 - Controlled Substance Database Act - On October 1, 2015, Senate Bill 119, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, also took effect. That new law requires law enforcement officers to get a warrant to search Utah’s Controlled Substance Database, which is under the jurisdiction of the state’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. The legislation was prompted by several unwarranted drug database searches. Utah’s prescription database was created by the Utah Legislature to collects names, date of birth, address, names of treating physicians, the visit to the doctor, and information from prescriptions including the medication prescribed and its dosage. Law enforcement officers use the database when they get a tip from a doctor or pharmacist about possible prescription fraud. Under the new law, the officer needs to submit a reasonable probable cause statement to a judge for the judge to grant the warrant.


Finding an Attorney for Drug Crimes in Utah

The attorneys at Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat, LLP represent clients charged with any violation of Utah law related to controlled substances under Utah Code section 58-37-8, possession of marijuana or possession of drug paraphernalia. We understand Utah's drugs laws and the best ways to fight the charges.

Let us put our experience to work for you. Call (801) 532-5297 to speak with an experienced drug crime lawyer in Salt Lake City, Utah.