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Homeless Drawn to Colorado’s Legal Marijuana

Russ Belville

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Directors of Denver-area homeless shelters say about a third of the people they serve relocated to Colorado for legal marijuana. “The older ones are coming for medical [marijuana], the younger ones are coming just because it’s legal,” Brett Van Sickle, director of Denver’s Salvation Army Crossroads Shelter told CBS News. Crossroads Shelter found that about 30% of their residents came to Denver for access to pot, which worked out to about 50 new emigrating clients per month over one three-month period in 2014.

Kim Easton, director of Urban Peak, a shelter for young people aged 15-25, also said about a third of her clients from out-of-town came for legal weed. In one three-month period, her drop-in center served over 500 more clients than it had the previous year, when it served 328 young people.

There are no official estimates of the reasons why people without homes had first come to Colorado, but the Criminology Department of Denver’s Metropolitan State University may soon determine if there is a correlation between marijuana’s legalization and rates of homelessness. Until now, explained assistant professor Rebecca Trammell, researchers have only heard anecdotal reports from shelter directors.

Access to marijuana for medicinal purposes drove multiple sclerosis sufferer Chris Easterling, a homeless man in Minnesota, to relocate to Denver.  While there are other states nearer to Minnesota with medical marijuana programs, for people without the means to jump through the regulatory hoops to get a medical marijuana card, they might as well be prohibition states. Legal marijuana for all 21 and older requires no extra scrutiny or cost for medical users.

But those people seeking to escape homelessness with a good job in the marijuana industry arrive to a bitter surprise. Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division requires two years of residency from applicants for licensing for everything from running a commercial grow to being a retail budtender.

Still, some have skills that can be put to work in the ancillary businesses that serve the burgeoning marijuana industry. “Once I got here, the industry was good to me,” a retired plumber named Arnold Kelley told CBS News. Kelley got work at a Denver dispensary that helped him qualify for the medical marijuana program.

There are, of course, other reasons for the increase in homelessness in Denver that have nothing to do with marijuana. While Colorado’s economy is on the rise, aside from legal marijuana, the costs of homes and apartments have outpaced many people’s means. There might be a great job to be found in the Green Rush in Denver, but there’s no place to live you can afford on the salary.

The homeless people who have come for the opportunities they see in marijuana legalization are no different than people with jobs, homes, and money also seeking those opportunities. The homeless people who come for the medical value they find in marijuana are no different than the moms and dads who come to Colorado to treat their epileptic kids. No doubt the anti-marijuana lobby will be gearing up some scare-mongering for 2016 that legalizing pot will flood your state with homeless people, when, in fact, legalizing pot will flood your state with people, period.

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