Colorado Public Safety Survey Attempts to Link Legal Weed With Homelessness
The latest look at Colorado’s homeless population after cannabis legalization concluded with more questions than concrete claims.
Published on July 5, 2018

Photo via U.S. Air Force

Since Colorado kicked off America’s recreational green rush back in 2012, pot prohibitionists and law enforcement groups have consistently claimed that legal weed has increased homelessness in the Centennial State. But while early research has all-but-debunked the supposed connection, Colorado officials have ignored those studies, and continue to spend money researching a possible correlation between the two social forces.

In the latest such survey, the Colorado Department of Public Safety looked at homelessness inside of the state prison system, with information from nearly 300 inmates who self-identified as homeless and almost 200 more who said they had a home outside of jail. In addition to questions about employment, mental health, and service needs, researchers asked inmates why they moved to Colorado in the first place, with nearly one-third of respondents citing legal weed as a deciding factor.

According to CNN, of respondents who reported that they were homeless and arrived in Colorado after 2012, 35.1% said that legal marijuana played a factor in their move, ranking behind reasons including “to get away from a problem” (44.2%), and family (38.9%).

While those numbers by themselves may suggest that legal cannabis was a motivator in what some claim has been a surge in homeless residents across Colorado cities, the study concluded that such figures couldn’t be interpreted as a causal relationship.

“There was no statistically significant difference between the homeless and non‐homeless  respondents in terms of the proportion that selected marijuana as the reason for coming to Colorado,” the study’s authors highlighted. “Both groups ranked marijuana as a reason to stay in Colorado though this was not in the top five reasons for either group.”

Adding even more doubt to the state-funded survey, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper argued that homelessness should not be a focus of post-legalization cannabis research or policy, considering the state’s other priorities. Because it is still illegal to consume marijuana outside of public residences, Colorado cannabis users are automatically at higher risk for arrest if they do not have stable housing.

"I would say [to sheriffs], the homeless is not the thing you've got to worry about,” Gov. Hickenlooper told CNN. “We've got black market traffickers, they seem to be coming from other states and they are criminals. We will provide you with the money. Let's focus our efforts on them, rather than putting in jail people that are homeless because it seems convenient."

Still, state law enforcement officials and social workers continue to claim that legal weed has attracted transient residents from other states.

"We've seen that over the past several years," Tom Luehrs, the executive director of Denver's St. Francis Center, told CNN. "We're caring for people that other states are not caring for.”

In what has become a semantic argument backed by anecdotal evidence instead of statistical research, Donald Burnes, a scholar-in-residence at the University of Denver who runs the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness, told MERRY JANE in March that all available data shows that the Centennial State has seen no significant increase in homelessness since cannabis legalization.

"Over the last three to four years, there has not been a major increase in the numbers of people coming into Colorado who are homeless," said Burnes to MERRY JANE. "The percentage of the total population experiencing homelessness who come from out-of-state has remained very constant — basically 14 to 15 percent."

"Colorado is a nice place. We have spectacular views," Burnes added.

Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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