Does Marijuana Legalization Cause Homelessness?
Anti-cannabis activists such as Kevin Sabet have recently spread the idea that legal cannabis encourages the country’s ongoing homelessness crisis. While there’s no conclusive evidence to prove this causation, it appears that legal cannabis use itself doesn’t cause homelessness — but the unequal opportunities in the booming legal marijuana industry might play a role.
The West Coast has always been a beacon for the nation’s homeless population. Weather, space and services have been longtime draws, but today, homeless populations and encampments have spiked to crisis levels in West Coast cities, despite an overall national decline in homelessness. One thing is clear: there will be no meaningful solution to the homelessness crisis until the causes of the problem are accurately identified and alleviated. Unfortunately, there is one wildly unproven and irresponsible theory that has taken hold in some politically influential circles: Legal marijuana is to blame for the rise in homelessness.
This idea that cannabis legalization causes homelessness is not only unfounded, but the argument further exacerbates the complex problems facing these communities by leading to ineffective partisan non-solutions. The sad irony of the situation is that legalization has likely contributed to homelessness, but not in the ways that the anti-cannabis lobby is suggesting. Had cannabis legalization been rolled out in a meaningful and fair way, marijuana would be lifting up all boats, not increasing the wealth disparities that have truly driven the growing income gap causing the crisis.
The Big Lie
Shortly before the 2016 election, I was contacted by friends within the pro-cannabis Mormon community in Las Vegas. They were a group of mothers and heritage herbalists who supported the re-legalization of the cannabis plant and greater medical access to it, and they were horrified to see anti-cannabis campaign flyers turning up in their churches. I attended these “information sessions” at their invitation, which were headlined by a woman named Jo McGuire, an “expert” who had come all the way from Colorado to talk about the negative effects of legalization.
Of course, McGuire failed to disclose she was not in any way a medical or academic professional, but rather a board member and lobbyist for the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA), an organization representing the interests of publicly traded corporations that profit off mandatory work and government drug testing. She also failed to mention she is an affiliate of thepharmaceutical-sponsored, anti-cannabis lobby Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) and was taking many of her talking points direct from its founder, Kevin Sabet. Sabet’s most prominent talking point as of late? Legalization is driving people to the streets to use drugs.
In the information sessions that I attended, McGuire made similar claims about the links between legal marijuana and homelessness. Afterward, I reached out directly to inquire about the studies and references she used to prepare her presentation and draw these conclusions. Any person who interprets and analyzes population statistics as their profession will be quick to tell you that correlation does not equal causation — or in this case, just because marijuana legalization and the increase in homelessness are happening at the same time does not mean they are directly related. In order to make that deduction, you need proof of the correlation. For example, McGuire’s argument is based on the flawed logic that marijuana use somehow didn’t exist in either homeless or sheltered populations before legalization. But still, I wanted to see the evidence McGuire would reference, and she didn’t disappoint.
McGuire cited a single internal report from Posada, a Pueblo, Colorado-based non-profit organization that provides services to its local homeless population. The internal report’s conclusions were drawn based on second-hand, self-reported outcomes in a single region outside the state’s major metro areas. The report acknowledges the rise of homelessness in the region, and then uses numbers about families with access to financial resources and shelter moving to Colorado for medical cannabis.
It then conflates those numbers with the growing homeless population because, they claim without citing, some of the homeless told them they moved there for “legalized pot.” Posada “feels” the numbers of homeless people “moving for pot” are actually higher.
I followed up with McGuire and pressed her to support her assertion that the homelessness was caused by a desire to “use pot.” She replied, “The shelter workers report that clients tell them they’ve moved to Colorado for marijuana. I learned today that both hospital emergency departments and shelters have coined the term ‘Marijuana Immigrants.’”
I persisted, “When you spoke in Las Vegas, you presented quite a bit of information on the notion that the homeless problem is tied to marijuana legalization. Are you saying this is all anecdotal?” McGuire replied that the anecdotes she mentioned and the single study by Posada were “statistical reports” — they are not — and were sufficient enough to draw that conclusion.
Still, the theory that legal marijuana causes homelessness has gained enough traction to be given the proper “non-biased” treatment in the news and for Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper to support the theory in his 2017 state of the state address. “There’s no question that marijuana and other drugs — in combination with mental illness or other disabling conditions — are essential contributors to chronic homelessness,” Hickenlooper said.
Published: May 1, 2018
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News