A new, controversial survey coming out of Colorado claims that over one-third of all homeless jail inmates coming to the state since 2012 are coming, at least in part, for legal cannabis. However, the survey, commissioned by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, is stirring tensions. The sheriff calls the results unsurprising, while a pot lobbyist calls it “irrelevant.”
Law enforcement made a claim not long ago that legal pot is attracting transient homeless people to the state. The survey, which questioned 507 homeless prisoners housed in seven county and city jails, aimed to verify this assertion. However, the head of the agency responsible for commissioning the survey says that the results barely put the question to rest.
The survey found that of all the homeless inmates sampled, the majority had come to the state prior to legalization. The rest, at least 41 percent of them, came afterward, when Colorado approved the legalization of recreational weed back in 2012. Of the participants, 77 prisoners fit that description, which amounts to approximately one percent of all jails surveyed.
Thirty-five percent of surveyed inmates put legal weed as one of the reasons they came to Colorado. According to Stan Hilkey, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, “That is not insignificant. We know that marijuana is one of the reasons thathave drawn some of the people here since legalization. It is not the top reason, but remains one of the reasons.”
For most inmates, the main reason for them coming to the state was “to get away from a problem.” Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper, downplayed the survey’s results, but he did emphasize the need for more data. “They did the survey on the cheap,” he explained. The Democrat noted that only two homeless inmates surveyed named marijuana as their sole reason for coming, despite several options.
Participants had multiple responses on offer, yet it is unclear just how many only chose one response. “That is a pretty small number,” Hickenlooper said. “Marijuana, was that something that made them come here? Again, I do not doubt that a third of them did. Does that mean we are attracting criminals? We are attracting a lot of people, and when you attract a lot of people, you get some homeless people.”
Executive director of the St. Francis Center in Denver, Tom Luehrs, says that he does not need a survey to know that marijuana is drawing more transient folks to the city and through the doors of his homeless shelter. “We have seen that over the past several years,” he clarified, noting that the lack of conclusive evidence makes it easy for skeptics to ignore the problem.
Luehrs claims that his shelter conducted its own informal study, which confirmed pot as the driving factor in attracting homeless folks to the city. “We are caring for people that other states are not caring for,” he explained. However, he remains optimistic that as other states legalize marijuana, as well, it will shift some of this burden to them.
Dismissing the survey’s findings, Mason Tvert, pro-cannabis lobbyist who led legalization efforts in its early days, asked, “What is the relevance? If 80 percent of them say they are coming for the weather, does that mean we have to try to address the messaging around the weather in Colorado to make sure that people do not think it is very nice here?”
Justin Smith, sheriff of Larimer County and steadfast critic of legalization, is not remotely surprised that homeless transient people are coming to Colorado for its legal weed. According to county records, at least one-fourth of prisoners incarcerated in the Larimer County Jail are transient or homeless, although nobody knows exactly how many are from out of state.
“It was not unusual for them to bring up marijuana as one of the factors that influenced their decision to come here,” said Smith of some inmates in his jail from other states. He said that many under his care are there for violent crimes, yet the survey did not suggest that homeless people were more violent than those with homes were. In fact, it found homeless folks less likely to face charges of violent crime.
“I think that merits further study,” Smith pointed out. In recent years, despite a national decline, crime in Colorado has been steadily increasing. According to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, back in 2016, crime was five percent higher than it was in 2013, with violent crime rates up a whopping 12.5 percent.
Hickenlooper does not consider homelessness the main problem, and he does not think that law enforcement should either. “I would say to sheriffs, the homeless is not the thing you have to worry about. We have black market traffickers, they seem to be coming from other states and they are criminals. We will provide you with the money. Let us focus our efforts on them, rather than putting in jail people that are homeless because it seems convenient.”
Ahead of the legalization question in Colorado, Hickenlooper was campaigning against it. In February, he told CNN that if statistics showed an increase in crime, then it is possible that the state would consider returning to the old system, although he did say that seems very unlikely. He will not be advocating for that today either. Asked if he is more amenable to legalization now, he said, “I am getting close.”