Colorado experts tackle the potential and challenges of using marijuana money to address homelessness

5 min. read
“A Joint Effort,” a discussion hosted by the University of Denver on how the cannabis industry can help end homelessness. History Colorado Center, June 21, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Sam Kamin, an integral member of the team that created the marijuana-legalizing Amendment 64, says they knew the world would be watching to see how legalized marijuana played out in Colorado back in 2013.

With that in mind, the Vicente Sederberg professor of Marijuana Law and Policy and the rest of the team envisioned the industry being “civic-minded” and having systematic ways of giving back to the community instead of following the paths laid by big tobacco and big alcohol, both frequently portrayed as villains. Yesterday evening, the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver hosted a panel of seven influential figures in the marijuana industry and housing services, including Kamin, to talk about how the marijuana industry can have a positive impact on homelessness in Colorado.

Meg Collins, vice president of Public Affairs for Good Chemistry, believes most Colorado residents are unaware of the philanthropic intentions of many stakeholders in the marijuana industry. For her business, as well as many other cannabis businesses, donating time, money and energy to social justice causes lies in the heart of their missions.

"It's finding out what the neighborhood needs, finding out what events are important to them, what individuals are important to them, so that we can help prioritize our efforts, be they monetary contributions or our staff's involvement," Collins said.

The panel first addressed popular myths of a causal relationship between legalized marijuana and an increase in homelessness. Professor Tim McGettigan from the Sociology and Institute of Cannabis Research at CSU-Pueblo has done extensive research in that area and has concluded that there is, in fact, nothing close to a one to one causal relationship between marijuana legalization and homelessness in the Pueblo area or the rest of the Front Range. He instead believes homelessness has been driven up in Colorado mainly due to poverty, which puts a strain on housing accessibility and makes many families one unexpected expense away from being evicted.

The real connection between homelessness and cannabis, he said, has to do with our treatment of veterans.

“In all 49 other states, rates of veteran homelessness are declining. Colorado is the one place where we're seeing veterans' homelessness increasing, and it's got a lot to do with the VA's bad attitude towards cannabis. The VA likes to punish veterans for failing to use VA therapies like opioids, which vets often say are more likely to kill them than cure them, but the VA doesn't care. So if vets are using cannabis, the VA punishes them, so we see them in the streets of Colorado,” McGettigan said.

He did mention that cannabis tourism, may have a slight influence on homelessness-related concerns like available housing. More and more, housing is being used as AirBnBs for high-paying tourists, putting an additional squeeze on Denver's housing supply. This increase in tourism, however, is not substantial enough to have significantly raised the population of people experiencing homelessness, especially in Denver, he said.

The state of Colorado has seen tremendous success taxing cannabis, and that money has done wonders for government agencies looking to fight homelessness in the state. Alison George, the director of the Colorado Division of Housing, has seen an uptick in the amount of services the state can provide given the amount of marijuana tax revenue allocated to her department. The Homeless Solutions Program has appropriated $15.3 million from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund for the creation of supportive housing interventions for those experiencing homelessness.

The Aurora City Council, meanwhile, was able to advocate for the marijuana industry in their city to increase taxes by 2 percent, which has led to a significant new revenue stream for services for  the Division of Housing. By the year 2020, they anticipate having more than $3 million in Marijuana Tax Revenue Commitments to help them continue to run programs like the House Aurora Partnership.

“To date we have prevented homelessness or rehoused 322 households — and that's in a year — with a little bit of marijuana money. Those numbers are not small," said Shelley McKittrick, director of the Aurora Division of Housing. "We're using cannabis tax revenue to do that ... using this money for the most impoverished, disenfranchised folks in our community."

All of the panelists agreed that the stigma associated with taking marijuana money was a limiting factor in the cannabis industry’s ability to give back to the community.

Some community-driven organizations worry about the implications of accepting money from an industry that is not legal at the federal level and could have Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) implications. Kamin, however, feels like the possibility of repercussions along those lines is exceptionally remote. Christian Sederberg, partner and founding member of Vicente Sederberg, echoed that sentiment, noting that at this point members of both the republican and democratic parties have accepted money from the marijuana industry.

"As we mainstream the cannabis industry in the state and across the country," Collins said, "we will continue to be able to be better partners with those organizations that aren't comfortable with marijuana."

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