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A Survey of Homeless in Jails Asks if Marijuana Drew Them to Colorado

When it comes to people experiencing homelessness in Colorado, one of the most common claims you'll hear is, “They're all here because of marijuana.”

This line is especially favored by conservative pundits. In 2014, The O'Reilly Factor garnered national attention with a sensational segment called “Stoned Homeless in Colorado” that claimed Colorado neighborhoods were turning into skid rows because of pot.

In reality, the connection between homelessness and cannabis is much murkier, and certainly not the clear-cut correlation that Bill O'Reilly would have you believe. Westword has monitored the issue closely, most recently publishing the results of an inconclusive report to Denver City Council in December and another study showing no casual link in March (the latter causing what Westword's Michael Roberts characterized as a “shitstorm” in Pueblo, where the police chief dismissed the findings as “junk science”).

Now there's another study to throw into the mix, released June 27 by the Colorado Department of Public Safety's Division of Criminal Justice. For “A Study of Homelessness in Seven Colorado Jails,” researchers surveyed 507 inmates in seven facilities (in the City and County of Denver and El Paso, Larimer, Mesa and Pueblo counties), of whom 60.8 percent said they had experienced homelessness within thirty days of entering jail.

Transplants outnumbered natives: 62 percent of the homeless respondents had moved to Colorado from other states, and of those transplants, 59 percent said they were in Colorado before marijuana was legalized in 2012.

A Survey of Homeless in Jails Asks if Marijuana Drew Them to Colorado
"A Study of Homelessness in Seven Colorado Jails"

That most of the homeless survey respondents were here before legal weed is interesting in and of itself. But what about the homeless transplants who arrived in Colorado after legalization? Did those newcomers come to the Centennial State on a quest for ganja?

The short answer is no; the study found no significant difference in cannabis being a draw for homeless vs. non-homeless transplants. The report's authors note that a 14 percent difference — with homeless respondents more often citing marijuana as a motivation for moving to Colorado — was not a wide enough margin to qualify as statistically significant with a survey size of 507 participants. Both homeless and non-homeless respondents reported that marijuana ranked as their third most important motivation (behind “getting away from a problem” and moving for family). Below is the survey data:

A Survey of Homeless in Jails Asks if Marijuana Drew Them to Colorado
"A Study of Homelessness in Seven Colorado Jails"

Homeless respondents who had been in Colorado before legalization in 2012 listed marijuana as the sixth most important reason for staying in the state.

“What we've learned is that homeless individuals have been coming to Colorado since before legalization of marijuana, driven by a combination of push-and-pull factors. They are fleeing problems and coming here for family, jobs, friends,- and, in some cases, for legal marijuana," says Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Department of Public Safety.

Hilkey also notes that the survey found a prevalence of mental health issues (64.2 percent of homeless respondents) and substance-abuse disorders (55.9 percent of homeless respondents) among respondents.

"The findings underscore what we already know: that Colorado’s jails already have far too many people in them with mental health and substance-
abuse issues,” Hilkey says. “That’s why efforts to address mental health and substance-abuse issues remain a top focus in our state and nationwide."

As for marijuana causing homelessness? The report did not ask homeless respondents whether they thought cannabis use contributed to their housing situation. Additional studies around homelessness and marijuana will be needed to see who's blowing smoke.

The report can be found here.

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