Last year, Colorado’s Division of Criminal Justice commissioned Eris Enterprises to conduct a study on homelessness in seven Colorado jails. The state released the results of that study this June. And the data is prompting a debate over the extent to which legal weed is attracting homeless people to Colorado.
Among Many Causes, Study Singles Out Marijuana As Driving Factor Behind Homelessness
Colorado is facing a proliferation of homelessness among those in the criminal justice system. To study this phenomenon, researchers surveyed 507 jail inmates between June and October 2017 across seven city and county jails.
Of those who answered the question, 297 inmates identified as homeless. But it’s important to understand that the survey intentionally over-represents homeless inmates. In other words, 297 of 507 is not representative of the percentage of homeless people locked up in Colorado.
One of the questions on the survey asked respondents about the reasons they came to Colorado in the first place. Keep in mind that the question allowed respondents to choose more than one reason.
According to the study’s results, the most prominent reason homeless people came to Colorado was “to get away from a problem” (44.2 percent). The second most prominent reason was family (38.9 percent).
And third was marijuana, at 32.4 percent. But it’s important to note that this number represents people who selected cannabis among several other reasons.
In fact, only two (of 507) inmates who took the survey and identified as homeless chose marijuana as their only reason for coming to Colorado.
But that hasn’t stopped those opposed to marijuana legalization from sounding the alarm about the link between legal weed, homelessness and crime.
Unpacking The Debate About Legal Weed and Homelessness
Some in Colorado are pointing to the study’s data as a sign of the consequences of legalizing cannabis.
One of Colorado’s most anti-cannabis law enforcement officials, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, says the study shows what he already knew. According to Smith, legal marijuana attracted many of the out-of-state inmates in his jail.
Smith also claimed that the homeless people his department books are often charged with violent crimes. But the Division of Criminal Justice’s survey shows that non-homeless respondents were statistically significantly more likely to commit a violent offense.
And that’s why many, including Colorado’s Governor, are less concerned with the study’s findings. In their view, the study’s data about marijuana and homelessness isn’t very significant.
Hickenlooper, who still does not personally support marijuana legalization, would rather law enforcement focus on black market criminality. Homelessness, he thinks, shouldn’t be a primary focus.
Homeless People Flee Criminalization In Legal Weed Colorado
Hickenlooper’s comments suggest the governor feels law enforcement is using homelessness as a convenient scapegoat to address the state’s increasing crime rate.
In fact, multiple studies attest to the criminalization of homeless populations. Often, homeless people end up behind bars simply because of the fact that they are homeless.
Enforcement of these “quality of life” offenses is up across the United States. The criminalization of homeless people contributes to mass incarceration.
And that may be one reason, some say, that homeless people come to Colorado in the first place. Legal weed, especially for homeless people struggling with drug addiction, means one less thing to worry about.
Additionally, the survey shows that “drug-related” crimes represented only a fraction of charges brought against homeless persons. The most common offense type, by far, was something the survey called “other”.
Still, homeless people are very often arrested due to drug-related crimes. So it makes sense for a homeless person hoping to avoid arrest to come to a place where cannabis use is legal.
New Study Won’t Change Colorado’s Weed Laws
Ultimately, the study isn’t going to produce any dramatic policy shifts toward cannabis in Colorado. At most, the study only suggests a possible and likely minor relationship between legal weed and homeless people who commit crimes.
In other words, a close look at the data shows clearly that there’s no conclusive evidence legal cannabis is drawing more homeless criminals to Colorado.