Legalized marijuana draws homeless Texans to Colorado

By Jace Larson - Investigative Reporter

DENVER, Colorado - Colorado is seeing a significant increase in the number of homeless people arriving from Texas and the head of two homeless shelters said a big reason for the increase is homeless people wanting to smoke pot.

"It wasn't the only reason but it was one of the main factors," Runa Renee Townsend, a homeless woman from Fort Worth, said of her reason for moving to Colorado.

At the Salvation Army's overnight shelter, they have seen their numbers nearly double.

"We were averaging 190 people a night. Now we are averaging 345 people a night," said Murray Flagg, the Salvation Army Intermountain Divisional secretary for social services.

The shelter recently started using an old storage room to house the extra people.

"We find about one in four people have come for some marijuana related issue," Flagg said.

Colorado made recreational marijuana legal under state law at the beginning of the year. Medical marijuana, which requires a doctor's prescription, has been legal for years. Both types of marijuana are still illegal under federal law, but the federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to prosecuting people who possess only a small amount of marijuana and who do not traffic it while committing other crimes.

Craig Howard, who used to live in Lubbock, went to Denver. He said he meets homeless Texans every day who went to Colorado to smoke marijuana.

"There are a lot of people here from Texas," Howard told investigative reporter Jace Larson.

The head of a day shelter in Denver said he was surprised by the increase in homeless from Texas coming to Colorado.

"At least 10 percent of our new out-of-state population is coming from Texas," said Tom Luehrs, the St. Francis Center executive director. "People tell us is that they think they can get a job because marijuana is legal here."

Homeless people often have jobs that pay minimum wage. Some of them work as day laborers making about $38 a day. They earn enough for spending money but not enough to pay rent.

But not everyone buying marijuana in Colorado is homeless.

"People you wouldn't expect come in a dispensary -- people dressed in suits, some people come in scrubs," said Calvin Pijlman, an employee at a Denver dispensary.

Recreational marijuana is taxed at more than 20 percent in Colorado. The state received more than $3 million in sales tax in one month this year.

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