Over one-third of incarcerated homeless people in Colorado who have migrated to the state since 2012 have signalled legal cannabis as one of the reasons for their move, according to a new study. But there seems to be little consensus over the significance of this report.
The study was commissioned by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and surveyed 507 mostly homeless inmates across seven cities and county jails in Colorado. The results seem to bolster local law enforcement's claim that legal cannabis has been attracting homeless people to Colorado. Of course, this is not the whole story.
The majority of the inmates surveyed (59 per cent) had come to Colorado prior to cannabis legalization in 2012. And only 35 percent of inmates who had relocated to Colorado after 2012 cited legal cannabis as one of the reasons for their move.
"That's not insignificant," Stan Hilkey, the executive director of Colorado's Department of Public Safety told CNN. "We know that marijuana is one of the reasons that it's drawn some of the people here since legalization. It's not the top reason, but remains one of the reasons."
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D) was quick to say only 2 of the homeless inmates surveyed cited cannabis as their only reason for coming to Colorado. "That is a pretty small number," he said.
"We're attracting a lot of people, and when you attract a lot of people you get some homeless people."
Yet Tom Luehrs, who operates the Denver-based homeless shelter called the St. Francis Center, says he believes that cannabis legalization has caused the increase in the amount of people frequenting his establishment.
"We've seen that over the past several years," Luehrs explained.
As crime rates climb in Colorado (having risen 5 percent between 2013 and 2016) both cannabis legalization and the homeless population have become scapegoats for tightening regulations. But Hickenlooper disagrees, saying black market drug traffickers are what police should be focusing on.
"I would say [to sheriffs], the homeless is not the thing you've got to worry about. 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."
And as the study itself suggests, homeless inmates are less likely to be arrested for violent crimes than the non-homeless. In this instance, social assistance and addiction treatment programs would be much more useful.