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Colorado Survey Suggests Legal Marijuana Is Attracting Homeless People

(CNN) - A new survey in Colorado suggests that more than one-third of homeless jail inmates who have come to the state since 2012 have come, at least in part, because of legal marijuana.

But the survey, commissioned by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, is getting mixed reviews: from a sheriff who says the results are no surprise, to a marijuana lobbyist who called it "irrelevant."

The survey of 507 mostly homeless inmates housed in seven city and county jails was aiming to shed light on the claim made largely by law enforcement: that legal marijuana is attracting transient homeless people to Colorado.

But the head of the agency that commissioned the study said it hardly puts the question to rest. It found that of the homeless inmates sampled, most had come to Colorado before legalization. The rest, about 41%, came after 2012, when Colorado voted to legalize recreational marijuana. Of the sample, 77 inmates fit that description, or roughly 1% of the total population of the jails that were surveyed. Thirty-five percent of those inmates said legal marijuana was among the reasons they came to Colorado.

"That's not insignificant," said Stan Hilkey, the executive director of Colorado's Department of Public Safety. "We know that marijuana is one of the reasons that it's drawn some of the people here since legalization. It's not the top reason, but remains one of the reasons."

The most common reason was "to get away from a problem."

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper downplayed the results of the survey, but stressed the need for more data. "They did [the survey] on the cheap," he said. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, points out that just two homeless inmates surveyed who arrived in Colorado post-legalization chose only marijuana as their reason for coming, though inmates were free to select multiple responses. It's unclear how many chose only one response.

"That is a pretty small number," he said. "Marijuana, was that something that made them come here? Again, I don't doubt that a third of them did. Does that mean we're attracting criminals? We're attracting a lot of people, and when you attract a lot of people you get some homeless people."

Tom Luehrs, the executive director of Denver's St. Francis Center, said he doesn't need a survey to know that marijuana has drawn more transient people to Denver and through the doors of his homeless shelter.

"We've seen that over the past several years," he said, adding a lack of solid research has made it easy for skeptics to ignore the issue.

Luehrs said his shelter did its own informal research that confirmed that marijuana is a driving factor in attracting homeless people to the city in many cases.

"We're caring for people that other states are not caring for," he said, though he is optimistic that marijuana legalization in other states will shift some of the burden elsewhere.

Mason Tvert, a pro-marijuana lobbyist who helped lead the effort to legalize marijuana, dismissed the survey's findings.

"What is the relevance? What if 80% of them said [they came] for the weather? Does that mean we have to try to address the messaging around the weather in Colorado to make sure that people don't think it's very nice here?"

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, an outspoken critic of legalized marijuana, is not surprised that legal marijuana in Colorado is attracting homeless transient people. According to county records, nearly one-fourth of the inmates in the Larimer County Jail are homeless or transient, though it's not clear how many are from out of state.

"It was not unusual for them to bring up marijuana as one of the factors that influenced their decision to come here," he said of some out-of-state inmates in his jail.

Smith said many of the homeless people in his jail are charged with violent crimes, but the survey did not suggest homeless people were more violent than others. In fact, it found homeless inmates were significantly less likely to face violent crime charges than non-homeless.

"I think that merits further study," he said.

Crime in Colorado has increased in recent years, while declining nationally. In 2016, the overall crime rate was up 5% from 2013, the violent crime rate was up 12.5%, according to figures from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the FBI.

Hickenlooper doesn't see homelessness as the primary issue, nor does he think law enforcement should, either.

"I would say [to sheriffs], the homeless is not the thing you've got to worry about. We've got black market traffickers, they seem to be coming from other states and they are criminals. We will provide you with the money. Let's focus our efforts on them, rather than putting in jail people that are homeless because it seems convenient."

Hickenlooper campaigned against legalizing marijuana ahead of Colorado's referendum. The governor told CNN in February that if statistics showed spikes in crime, it's possible the state could look at going back to the old system, though he stressed it seemed unlikely. Hickenlooper won't be leading that charge any time soon. Asked if he would vote to legalize the drug today, he's not sure he would, but "I'm getting close," he said.

By Scott McLean, CNN

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