Colorado Marijuana Legalization and Rise in Homelessness (Article)


Well-Known Member
I came across this article in the British Newspaper online, The Guardian. Marijuana is a scourge in my family. I know some of you feel the same way.

I read most of this article, which represents both sides of the issue well. But I had to stop reading because it was so painful to me. Honestly. I cannot bear how our children are living. I keep asking myself, why? It seems that I know less and less as time goes by, question more and more my own values and what I thought I knew about life.

Maybe you folks will be able to read this and help me make better sense of things. How did it come to this? Where our children, many of them impaired are so adrift? Where is the social safety net to prevent this kind of Sophie's Choice each of us is facing? Or is it me? Am I the one who is increasingly lost?


Is Colorado's homeless surge tied to marijuana legalization?

An 8% rise in homelessness has fueled speculation over whether legalization boosted the numbers of displaced in America’s unofficial legal cannabis capital.

Marijuana has transformed the Denver landscape since it was legalized. Photograph: Andrew Burton for the Guardian
Outside in America
Is Colorado's homeless surge tied to marijuana legalization?
An 8% rise in homelessness has fueled speculation over whether legalization boosted the numbers of displaced in America’s unofficial legal cannabis capital

Josiah Hesse in Denver

Monday 27 February 2017 06.00 EST Last modified on Monday 27 February 2017 06.01 EST

Annie Mae Noel has been on the streets since her Denver house, which had been in her family for more than a century, went into foreclosure in 2015. She also happens to smoke pot.

“I use marijuana to treat my MS, it has nothing to do with me not having a home,” she said recently, standing outside the Denver Rescue Mission.

But some in Denver, the unofficial legal marijuana capital of the US, are not so sure. Colorado has seen an uptick in homelessness of just over 8% since 2013, a year after the state backed legalization, fueling speculation over whether the looser rules have boosted the numbers of those on the city’s sidewalks and in its shelters.

The question reverberates beyond the Rocky Mountains, because voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada approved the recreational use of marijuana in the 2016 elections, joining four other states and the District of Columbia.

In Colorado, prominent politicians have sounded a warning. “There’s no question that marijuana and other drugs – in combination with mental illness or other disabling conditions – are essential contributors to chronic homelessness,” Governor John Hickenlooper recently said in his state of the state address.

The governor has proposed that some marijuana revenues, which reached $200m in taxes and fees in 2016, should be directed toward homelessness programs. Some read this as a legislator’s way of saying that the problem should pay for itself.

He has the support of homelessness advocates such as Daniel Starrett, a divisional commander of the Salvation Army. “The marijuana industry needs to accept responsibility for unintended consequences of their impact on society,” he said.

Starrett contends that marijuana is a gateway drug to other substances – a question on which the science is not settled – and that the financial burden of marijuana use on struggling families can lead to them losing their homes.

Marijuana has transformed the Colorado landscape since it was legalized in 2012, creating an economic boom of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity. It has also spawned detractors: a few years later, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly sent correspondent Jesse Watters to Denver for a segment that spliced interviews with homeless people who consume marijuana and clips from stoner films such as Half Baked.

But many reject a chain of causation. “Smoking weed didn’t cause me to be here,” said James Leroy Aiken, a middle-aged man who has been homeless for four years and was waiting for dinner outside the rescue mission. He attributes his homelessness to the death of several family members, a learning disability that prevented him from learning how to read, and his addiction to meth.

Medical marijuana gives him some control over his schizoaffective disorder and anxiety, he said. “It also helped me get off methamphetamine.”

The leading culprits in substance abuse are actually alcohol, narcotics and opiates, not cannabis, said John Parvensky of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. For this reason, some have accused the governor of hypocrisy, considering that before becoming a politician he co-founded a craft brewery.

“Marijuana tends to be a companion drug to those other things rather than a sole-addicted substance,” Parvensky added.

Yet there may be a kernel of truth in the governor’s comments.

More than 100,000 new residents flooded the state in 2015, when it was reported to be short 15,000 homes. Legal cannabis isn’t the only reason for the mass migration to Denver – accessible healthcare and low unemployment also help – though there’s no doubt it is boosting the economy.

Marijuana tourism has led to surging occupancy rates at hotels, said Parvenksy, including the low-cost options that are often a last resort for people on the verge of homelessness.

“We are seeing people who were homeless in other states coming here specifically because they can get marijuana here,” said Tom Luerhs, executive director of the St Francis Center in Denver. “Others come here thinking they can get a job in the marijuana industry, and then they can’t get a job as quickly as they thought, and they end up homeless.”

The effects go beyond real estate. Last summer Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, blamed legal marijuana for two separate acts of minor violence committed by homeless transplants to the city: a man swinging a PVC pipe at pedestrians, and a clash between panhandlers and office workers. The mayor referred to them as a “scourge of hoodlums” and added, “This is one of the results of the legalization of marijuana in Denver, and we’re going to have to deal with it.”

Still, such cases seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Annie Mae Noel said that marijuana brings a sense of peace to the Denver homeless community.

“Most of my adopted friends and family, we all smoke pot, and we try to get together as often as we can and share,” she said, shivering against the cold. “If one doesn’t have weed, we make sure they’re provided for. We take care of each other. We like to call it our altitude adjustment.”

Noel thinks those on the other side of the marijuana debate are shortsighted.

“There are all kinds of reasons people out here are homeless. Most people don’t realize that they’re two paychecks away from where we are right now.”
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Well-Known Member
“We are seeing people who were homeless in other states coming here specifically because they can get marijuana here,” said Tom Luerhs, executive director of the St Francis Center in Denver. “Others come here thinking they can get a job in the marijuana industry, and then they can’t get a job as quickly as they thought, and they end up homeless.”

This is our son. He could have had a place here. He could have had a home here. He couldn't follow the rules of our house and so for a time he was homeless here. He CHOSE to go to Colorado and be homeless there instead of dealing with his issues here. The #1 factor in his choosing Colorado was weed. Not a doubt in my mind.

Copa, these days my son isn't in touch much. In fact, I messaged him yesterday just to see if he was okay. I hadn't heard from him in two weeks. I am coping by just trying not to think about it. :(


Roll With It
I am not one to agree with this article. I think homelessness has a much more complicated cause than just one thing and to blame homelessness on pot is shortsighted. I am sure pot contributes in some way, but to say it is the cause simply is not accurate. I would say mental illness is probably a far larger cause and the lack of proper mental health care and true understanding of the roots of addiction are also far more to blame.

It is just easier to blame pot. I would probably blame alcohol before I blamed pot - it is so much easier to acquire and people start using it so much earlier and it is so much more socially acceptable. No one really talks about it, do they? Talking about pot sells more advertising and is more controversial, so right now it gets the blame. The problems is simply far more complex than that.


100% better than I was but not at 100% yet
My coworker's son moved to Colorado for that very reason. He did have friends there so moved into an apartment with them. He's working but they fund a lot of his bills and he is doing other recreational drugs also and she knows it.

Agree with Susiestar though. It's many things and not just pot. I guess the people that can't smoke pot and function simultaneously would contribute to that situation though!


Well-Known Member
Oh I agree that homelessness is not caused by pot. I think the increase in homelessness in Colorado over and above the increase in the country in general, is by and large caused by pot. In other words, at least for my son, it's largely a matter of "if I have to be homeless somewhere, it may as well be where I can easily acquire and won't get arrested for pot." So when deciding where to "start over", that was where he went.


Well-Known Member
homelessness is not caused by pot.
I think we have consensus here that homelessness involves a constellation of inter-related factors.

I believe Colorado marijuana had a "gold rush" effect. There was the allure of pot, the culture of pot, the newness of legalization. with the sense there was a libertine, self-indulgent and/or permissive culture, all of which would entice self-indulgent, impulsive difficult children.

I think our kids do go for the "flash in the pan," the idea there is something for nothing, the idea that they can do it all without a downside, the idea that there are no costs to be paid.

So, to the extent that our kids had all of this "going for them" before: the impulsivity, the belief that they do not have to conform, that there are freebies in life, the entitlement, and desire to live beyond rules and beyond restraints--the idea of a culture that permitted the free use of marijuana, would hold appeal, because it brought together their commonly held ideology. The Difficult Child ideology.

Of course it was not the marijuana, per se. All of these adults and kids had free access already to marijuana bought illegally or through dispensaries. It was the cultural promise and the cultural reinforcement that Colorado legalization provided.

Lil. I can certainly see why your son for right now is not in regular or frequent contact. He is immersed in a cultural milieu that could not be further than anything you represent.

Trust me, this will run its course. I believe this.

Pretty soon all of this will be old news. That day may have already arrived.
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Well-Known Member
I think homeless drug users flocked to Colorado hoping to cash in on the pot industry. At least, although they are still on the hook for coke and heroin, they can openly smoke pot. I think this is seen as very cool by some.

I so so so so agree with very smart Susie that alcohol is similar to pot, ok in moderation for many, addictive to some, and definitely a Gateway drug too. Hey, more drug users smoke cigarettes. Non smokers are far less apt to abuse anything. Most drug users smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes are often the very first sneak our kids try, and they are not harmless either.

I think think that this Colorado Gold Rush of the homeless will pass as pot becomes legal everywhere...and it will.

As for pot, I hate it. The mentally ill use it in place of getting real help. But they do that with alcohol too. We tried prohibition. It would work no better now than it did then.

I feel the citizens in states where pot is legal will pull in the homeless until it is legal everywhere. I am not surprised about this.

In the end, i believe legal pot will end up the same as alcohol. Some will use it recreationally and be fine, like some can drink moderately and will be fine. And some will not handle pot and become high all the time, which in my opinion is very bad for many. Too much of any mind altering substance has got to change the brain.

To be fair, we are not done observing any big change in drug addiction becuase of legal pot. Or not. Ugh...i deplore these substances, but it is what it is. And we cant stop it...
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Well-Known Member
In my short "intro" to posting the article, I noted the failure of the social "safety net."

Some of our kids are "only" impulsive and immature. Others like my own son are mentally ill. Until there are good community-based treatment options widely available, the allure of marijuana to self-medicate, and the attraction of indigent, alternative communities will continue.

Once the allure of "the alternate culture" has lost its bloom, I think most people want a good and constructive life, if that option is available. Many of the kids on this forum (or subject of this forum) do turn to more constructive options in time. But some will require social supports.

I applaud the parents who help their children access said supports that may be available from the get go. Had I done this earlier my son might have had an easier road.

My son last month was fortunate to go to an excellent residential treatment facility. Alas he had to leave after 10 days because our excellent insurance has found a way to avoid the costly, excellent programs. My son loved the program, responded to it, wanted to stay and grieved its loss.

Often the lure of these alternative lifestyles is because there are insufficient and inadequate good options for treatment and support--as well as immaturity and general foolishness.


Well-Known Member
We have not had adequate supports for the mentally ill since i can remember. I relied heavily on self help groups and psychiatrists; at the time work insurance was good with low deductibles. This is no longer the case, which is why it is best if the mentally ill get social security which then offers Medicare and Medicaid. They/we need help and have no leeway to have too much pride to accept these services or we will have NONE.

But that doesnt include the mentally ill who cant work or would need a job coach to go to work with them. This does not include the mentally ill who are not needing community home living and cant live alone and handle it. Too many fall between the cracks. It is like this in many developed countries and it is shameful. A few small progressive countries (emphasis on small) are able to intervene in more personal and helpful ways with their mentally ill population. We are too large for one on one intervrntion for all, but we could build housing with medical health on the premisis for the mentally ill. Like assisted living for the elderly.
When mentally ill people, including psychotic folks, got "rigjts to refuse treatment" and hospitals were shut down, the mentally ill spilled both into the street and some had to go home with their parents, a poor, impossible lifetime solution since parents usually die before their adult children, leaving them shocked and helpless.

This is a taint on our country and it isnt getting better anytime soon. I dont believe our current leaders care one wit about the mentally ill. So we are writing off people who are suffering and helpless...and it breaks my heart...and I dont see a change for a long, long time. And it is very sad and disgusting too.
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Well-Known Member
Staff member
I only read half the article...I confess. I can tell you that for a short time I was a group counselor to teens who were sent to counseling due to drug use, but the real truth is most of it was marijuana usage. I was a little surprised that their use of marijuana seem to have such a profound negative effect on them. I actually recall when I was in high school...many many decades ago...there were people who used pot that were a mess and a few others that used pot that actually did very well in school. The pot today seems to be significantly stronger (proven) and negatively impacting. These teens had NO motivation (I mean zero) to get anything done. No school, no work, no getting along with people, no change for the better....zilch.
AND some absolutely were addicted. Many smoked before school and then the second they got home from school. These same kids could not stay awake during school and we had to come up with all sorts of tricks to keep them awake during class time...even in classes they more or less enjoyed. Those that also suffered from a mental illness, were often worse. Perhaps it negatively influenced their medications....I'm not sure. Most, if not all of them, suffered from memory issues as well as the lack of motivation. We use to have hand outs, games, group discussion, cause and effect reasoning discussions, reward systems in place, drug testing...all sorts of things in an effort to help. We did notice that some would eventually respond to the "group," and ended up almost enjoying meeting others their age for the meetings. Some were clearly lonely, etc. But, many we knew in our hearts would very likely use again.

RE: Colorado...I am conflicted. I absolutely feel marijuana should be available for those who are ill, particularly for those who are in pain. NOT a sham or joke....but regulated carefully and generously given to those who are ill. BUT, that surely is a tall order.

I do know of people in my own immediate area that sent their kids to Colorado because they would not stop smoking marijuana. Both got off to very rocky starts for several least five. BUT, interestingly, both are doing better now...not sure what happened in the in between time. Parents are mum.

Tanya M

Living with an attitude of gratitude
Staff member
I worked in downtown Denver for many years and saw first hand, everyday homeless people on the 16th street mall panhandling. I have not lived Denver for closer to 15 years now but do go to visit family. With more people moving to the area the homeless population will also rise. It was heartbreaking to see people who were strung out begging for money. There are also scammers who pretend to be homeless. You also have groups of homeless teenagers who will gang up on people trying to get money. When I saw a group of teens I always crossed the street. I learned quickly not to give money. If someone was truly hungry I would walk them over to one of the many hot dog vendors and buy them a couple of hot dog and a bottle of water.

I was out there last year and was amazed at the growth of the city and surrounding towns. The pot industry has created a huge rise in the cost of living. A small 850 sq. ft. house can sell for $400 thousand dollars. My niece who works in downtown Denver pays $2000 a month for a small one bedroom apt.

One must have a very good paying job to be able to afford housing and I'm sure this contributes to the issue.

I think the article is spot on in regards to people thinking they are going to move there and have a great job in this industry and find out it's not as easy as they think.

To say that pot is the reason for the rise in homelessness is a far reach. I'm sure that it has contributed. Those that have moved to the area in hopes of making it big by working in a pot store have found themselves unemployed or under employed. Couple that with high cost of living and some homelessness will result.

I think the bigger factor is the mindset of so many people in that they do not embrace a strong work ethic. Far too many people live with an expectation that they should not have to work and instead expect someone else to foot the bill for their life. My son is included in this category. The mindset of not taking any personal responsibility but instead blaming others for the mess they have made of their lives. This of course is only one part of the homeless population. Those who are capable of working, just not willing. These people, like my son just want to be high all the time. This is where pot can be a gateway drug. Trying to "recreate" that first high, you smoke more and more pot and when you don't achieve that euphoric feeling it's easy for some to move onto stronger drugs.

Many of the homeless population are mentally ill. Many are veterans who once they came home found it difficult to acclimate back into civilian life. There are also people who lost their homes when the housing bubble burst.

I also know that the Denver Rescue Mission does a good job reaching out to the homeless but many are reluctant to go to the shelter. One year when I was still working in downtown Denver, it was a brutally cold winter. The Rescue Mission sends people out to find homeless people to bring them in out of the cold. There was a man who did not want to go and sadly he froze to death overnight.

Bottom line, I think are many different factors of how people end up being homeless.


Well-Known Member
I was out there last year and was amazed at the growth of the city and surrounding towns. The pot industry has created a huge rise in the cost of living. A small 850 sq. ft. house can sell for $400 thousand dollars. My niece who works in downtown Denver pays $2000 a month for a small one bedroom apt.

I have a cousin who is a registered nurse who lives near Boulder. She makes VERY good money. She rents out her guest room in order to help pay her housing costs. She's never said what it costs...but made it clear that it's incredibly expensive.

When my son first went out there I spent quite a bit of time looking at the cost of renting somewhere. Rentals, even in less desirable areas of Colorado (he is not in Denver) run $100 per week for literally a bed - in fact some were "Sleep on our couch for $100/week." Shocking cost of living for someone from rural Missouri, let me tell you!

I also know that the Denver Rescue Mission does a good job reaching out to the homeless but many are reluctant to go to the shelter.

As I said, mine isn't in Denver, but there is a rescue mission where he is. He got into that shelter for a few weeks after Christmas - and HATED it. He stayed, because he's smart enough not to freeze, but complained bitterly about the noise and the 'tweekers' and the coughing and people spreading germs...if one person got sick, they all got sick. I think he'd have taken almost any alternative.


Well-Known Member
She rents out her guest room in order to help pay her housing costs. She's never said what it costs...
In San Francisco there are people who $2000 a month for a bed, in a room where dozens sleep, in different shifts. A typical apartment begins at $4000 a month. One bedroom. An unremarkable place.

Supply and demand. Jobs. I hear the same thing is so in the shale oil boom in the Dakotas.

My son hangs onto the idea of living in the Bay Area. We are from there. But I am priced out. My son stayed free for 2 years when he first left here. He cannot grasp the idea that he cannot live in a high-demand, resource-rich community, without working to earn this lifestyle. He did have the opportunity for subsidized housing in SF. He refused to conform to what was required to get it.

Most frustrating? He says IF he lived in the Bay Area he would be productive and would do constructive things, but CAN NOT because our small city does not offer what he needs. Give me a break. Blaming my small but entirely satisfactory community? Which he dismisses as totally full of meth-heads. Yet when we walk through areas of nice homes (where we live) he asks? What work do these people do to afford these homes?

Nurses and teachers and accountants; business owners, electricians, ministers...and the list goes on.

It frustrates me that my son does not see that life as we live it in this society is based upon investment. What you put in, you will get out (usually.) It is not magic. Life is earned. You earn the life you work for.

Is this so hard to grasp? I guess so.

I struggle with the idea lately that it is me who has got it wrong. That maybe there is another way to live, that I am not grasping. Maybe there has been a paradigm shift, of which I am unaware. Can somebody help me with this?


Well-Known Member
California recently legalized recreational marijuana. I was not in favor of the bill as it was written, because it greatly limits the options for those of us who prefer not to smoke. I do have a medical card, and it helps greatly with my chronic pain. I believe alcohol, as Susie said, causes more problems, and I can't think of any medical use for alcohol other than to pour it over a cut.

Mental illness, and the lack of affordable and practical supports, is a huge problem. Unfortunately, a person does have the right to be mentally ill and not accept help, which I think is terribly sad.

Copa, I don't think that you have it wrong. The logical consequences of living a life out of the mainstream means that things will be more difficult for that person. There are many different ways to live, to choose your path, but I know of no other way to afford a home, a car, and the hundreds of other things that make life comfortable than to work for them. I would love to be back in the Bay Area, too, but 60 hour weeks and 90 minute commutes are not what I want at this stage of my life. We make our choices.