MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It.
The law of unintended consequences may be in play in the Centennial State.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Retail sales of the drug reached $1.5 billion last year.
Now Coloradans are dealing with a rapidly growing homeless population— and arguing about whether marijuana is to blame.
WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has more.
JIM HENRY, REPORTER: On a busy street in Pueblo, Colorado— 21-year old Devin panhandles— bringing in less than $10 a day.
DEVIN: I’m needing help with food and other basic necessities such as toilet paper and women’s hygienes for my mom.
Devin and his mother came to Pueblo from Massachusetts where they were homeless. Now they are essentially homeless in Colorado— living day to day in a rundown hotel when they can afford it— paid for with the mom’s disability checks.
Why did they come to Colorado?
DEVIN: I mean I guess you could say one of the reasons was for the weed, but in Massachusetts they have recreational marijuana out there too.
Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016— but Devin and his mother hoped somehow their lives would be better in Colorado.
Anne Stattelman runs Posada— a homeless center for families in Pueblo.
STATTELMAN: They’re coming here for opportunity and they’ve kind of been sold a bill of goods on this plant that isn’t really accurate.
Stattelman says many come to Colorado hoping to work in the marijuana industry— but find those jobs difficult to get. Then they turn to already overburdened social services.
Recreational marijuana use became legal in Colorado in January of 2014, and Stattelman says the effect was immediate.
STATTELMAN: The next day when we opened our doors to regular business we noticed a line almost out to the street. And these are people from mostly other states who had come to Colorado and were stranded, so they needed our help to find and secure housing or other services.
Exacerbating the problem— many people with financial resources have come to Colorado because recreational marijuana is legal. They’ve gobbled up available homes and apartments— making it more difficult for low income residents to find housing.
STATTLEMAN: So we’ve seen a tripling of homeless numbers in Pueblo since 2014 and that’s not just Posada. Those are many of the agencies that serve this at-risk population.
Rising homelessness is affecting other Colorado cities too— but the problem got so bad in Pueblo that that researchers at Colorado State University-Pueblo conducted a study to find the cause.
The school’s Institute for Cannabis Research is funded by $1.5 million in state and local marijuana revenues. Psychology Professor Tim McGettigan led the study.
MCGETTIGAN: What we found when we examined the issue closely with the available evidence is that there’s no linkage between the two phenomena.
In other words, no linkage between legal recreational marijuana and rising homeless. Instead— McGettigan and his colleagues say local utility Black Hills Energy is to blame for charging high rates, then driving low-income people out of their homes when they can’t pay for power.
MCGETTIGAN: Black Hills Energy even now puts approximately 2,000 families out of their homes in Pueblo alone every three months. So it’s almost 8,000 families per year that Black Hills Energy is kicking out of their homes and that is a very direct driver of much higher rates of homelessness in Pueblo. It stands to reason.
On that— McGettigan and Anne Stattelman at the Posada homeless center agree. Both think Black Hills Energy disconnects far too many people.
But Stattelman says it’s wishful thinking to argue pot isn’t contributing to the spike in homelessness. She called the legitimacy of the study into question.
STATTELMAN: None of his work was peer reviewed, so we don’t really consider it research.
McGettigan says the study was actually a technical report based on census, state and local demographic data.
Regardless of the reason, Colorado’s homelessness problem continues to grow with no end in sight.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.