The Denver Post has a story this weekend claiming that marijuana is contributing to the city’s homeless problem. It was picked up on Drudge, then went out over the Associated Press wire. The headlines that have run with the story suggest a city filling up with drug addicts whose habit put them on the streets. But that isn’t really what the story is about.
When Edward Madewell’s mother asked him to come home after five years of homelessness and drift, he bought a Greyhound bus ticket and headed for Missouri.
Halfway there, his mother told him he would have to give up the marijuana he uses to control seizures and switch to prescribed medicine. Madewell changed his plans and headed for Colorado, where recreational weed has been sold legally since Jan. 1.
“I’m not going to stop using something organic,” he said. “I don’t like the pills.”
Madewell is among the homeless lured to Colorado by legal marijuana who are showing up at shelters and other facilities, stressing a system that has seen an unusually high number of people needing help this summer.
The story then relays anecdotes about young people who came to Colorado to look for jobs in the marijuana business and have checked into homeless shelters until they find work — or get frustrated and leave. So legal pot isn’t making people homeless so much as it might be drawing people to Denver, some of whom may already be homeless, others of whom are staying at shelters while looking for jobs. This sounds less like a link between pot and homelessness and more like what you might call the Amsterdam effect — when a vice is only legal in one place, everyone goes to that place to partake in the vice, which also means that place bears a disproportionate share of the externalities. As more states legalize pot, Colorado will become less of a destination for pot smokers.
But it’s far from clear that even that is happening in Colorado right now. Yes, a worker at one homeless shelter told the Post, “Of the new kids we’re seeing, the majority are saying they’re here because of the weed. They’re traveling through. It is very unfortunate.” But the director of another shelter wouldn’t confirm the idea at all: “I have no idea if the marijuana law has had an impact.” A third blamed the surge in young homeless people on the economy. So of the three shelter directors interviewed, just one made a connection to pot. Yet that’s the headline.
When the Denver Post reporter tries to actually quantify how many people are checking into homeless shelters because of pot, this is the best he can do:
Last summer, the Salvation Army’s single men’s Crossroads Shelter in Denver housed an average of 225 men each night.
This summer’s average is about 300 per night, and when other shelters are full, the organization provides a bed for as many as 350, Flagg said.
In the past, the shelter’s residents averaged between 35 and 60 years old. “Now we are seeing a much larger number of 18- to 25-year- olds.”
An informal survey performed at the shelter suggested that about 25 percent of the increase in population was related to marijuana, Flagg said.
So this shelter is seeing on average about 75 more homeless people per night than in a typical summer, and according to an informal survey, one in four of those 75 say they’re in Denver for reasons related to legal marijuana. That’s about 19 people. At one shelter, 19 people self-reported that pot was a contributing factor to their homelessness. That hardly seems newsworthy, much less anything resembling a crisis.
Take pot out of the story, and you get a better sense of how drummed up all of this feels. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the increase in occupants at this particular shelter is representative of homelessness across Denver. Let’s also assume that the informal survey taken at this shelter is scientifically accurate and also representative of all of Denver. Assuming all of that, and taking out the 19 pot cases, we’d find that there has still been a 25 percent increase in homelessness across Denver that has nothing to do with marijuana. What’s behind that? That seems far more newsworthy.
Of course, it isn’t newsworthy, precisely because we shouldn’t draw broad conclusions about homelessness in Denver based on some anecdotes and one informal, unscientific survey taken in a single homeless shelter. There seems to be an eagerness to find consequences for pot legalization in places where there’s simply no evidence one way or the other. We saw this in the weeks after legalization, when there was a rush to pin a car accident on a “drugged driver.” The truth, as we’d learn months later, is that the driver was black-out drunk. We’ve also seen it in the scary stories about a rise in pot-related crime in Denver that are based on little more than anecdotes from anti-pot law enforcement officials. The truth is that crime in Denver has fallen since legalization. And we now see it with a mix of anecdotes and an attempt to attach significance to numbers that really aren’t that significant at all.
By the way, I’m not arguing that pot legalization hasn’t led to a surge in homelessness among young adults in Denver. I don’t know one way or another. Perhaps a year from now, Denver’s homeless shelters will still be at or above capacity, and we’ll see compelling evidence that the overflow is due to legal marijuana. My only point is that there’s no such compelling evidence right now.