DENVER — CNN reported a new survey funded by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and the Department of Public Safety found that one-third of jailed transients in Colorado moved to the state because of legal marijuana, prompting experts and politicians alike to ask, does legal marijuana attract homeless people?
The survey was conducted by Eris Enterprises and was a response to the claim of local authorities who said that legalized recreational marijuana attracted homeless people to Colorado. Voters legalized recreational marijuana in the state in 2012. The survey asked 507 inmates across seven Colorado jails why they decided to move to Colorado.
Most inmates said they moved to Colorado prior to 2012, with 41 percent moving after legalization. At least 35 percent of those who moved to Colorado after 2012 said that they chose the state partly because of legal marijuana.
Crime has decreased at the national level, but Colorado has seen an increase. The crime rate in the state rose five percent between 2013 and 2016, with violent crime increasing 12-and-a-half percent. Many local officials have blamed the recent rise on the transient population, citing the fact that more than one-fourth of the Larimer County Jail's current inmates are homeless or transient.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith isn't surprised and says that inmates in his jail claiming that they moved to the state for legal marijuana wasn't unusual. However, the survey found that homeless people are less likely to commit violent crimes than non-homeless residents and are more likely to be charged with a non-violent drug crime or for trespassing.
Governor Says Survey Was “Cheap”
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said the survey was “cheap” and needed more data, adding that the survey allowed people to choose several answers when asked why they came to the state and noted that it isn't clear how many moved for the state's legal marijuana alone.
“Marijuana, was that something that made them come here?” Hickenlooper said. “Again, I don’t doubt that a third of them did. Does that mean we’re attracting criminals? We’re attracting a lot of people, and when you attract a lot of people you get some homeless people.”
Thirty-eight percent gave family as their reason for moving to the state, with 28.6 percent moving for employment opportunities and 22 percent moving to be near friends.
Marijuana advocate Mason Tvert also questioned the survey's significance.
"What if 80 percent of them said they came for the weather?” he said. “Does that mean we have to try to address the messaging around the weather in Colorado to make sure that people don’t think it’s very nice here?”
Does Legal Marijuana Attract Homeless?
Hickenlooper believes that the illegal drug trade should be the focus of law enforcement, not the homeless population. Hickenlooper said that drug traffickers are coming into Colorado from other states, adding "Let’s focus our efforts on them, rather than putting in jail people that are homeless because it seems convenient.”
The survey also found that more than 61 percent of those surveyed were in need of mental health services. Many had conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies show that marijuana can ease the symptoms of depression, PTSD, and many other conditions.
The St. Francis Center is a homeless shelter in Denver, and the executive director Tom Luehrs said that he sees the proof daily that Denver attracts more homeless people, while also noting that they are moving to a state with legal marijuana for health reasons.
"We're caring for people that other states are not caring for," said Luehrs.
Stan Hilkey is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety and said that although he thinks the survey is not insignificant, legal marijuana is only one reason people move to Colorado, not the main reason.