Legalizing homelessness?

Last night, with 97 percent of the vote counted, CNN projected that the state of Florida would not approve the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes (Merica, CNN). Because the issue meant a change to my home state’s constitution, a full 60 percent of Florida voters needed to approve the measure; last night, only 57 percent had. Twenty-three other states, however, have made medical marijuana legal. Four states — including Oregon and Alaska and Washington, D.C., after yesterday’s vote — have approved recreational marijuana use. Having visited two of those four — Colorado and Washington — in the past month, I am happy Florida is still holding out.

Though the votes are counted in many states, I think the verdict on the legalization of marijuana — whether for medical or recreational purposes — is still out. Is legalizing marijuana in the best interest of these United States of America?

As the youngest of five children, I spent much of my life watching my siblings’ actions and the consequences for those actions. It helped me to make wise choices. I’m perfectly OK with Florida playing the part of the younger child — waiting, watching, and weighing the costs and benefits of the legalization of marijuana before acting. Today, I offer my experience in downtown Denver. As I live in a relatively small town that has made panhandling illegal, what I saw on the streets of Denver (and just last week in Seattle) was unsettling in different ways. Because of what I’d seen on the news, I went into Denver expecting to see the impact of marijuana on homelessness. I saw it. Was my interpretation of what I saw skewed by my expectations? 


A view of the pedestrian mall in downtown Denver, apparently a favorite habitat of the homeless.
A view of the pedestrian mall in downtown Denver, apparently a favorite habitat of the homeless.

Just before I arrived for a business trip, I watched a news feature that suggested the legalization of marijuana has significantly increased homelessness in Denver. And that was exactly what I saw when I arrived. My hotel room was located near a long pedestrian mall, where I walked as often as I could, so happy to enjoy the weather, the view, and the chance to do something other than sit in meetings.

But this beautiful city, this picturesque mall, was host to a menagerie of business professionals, shoppers, tourists, and the homeless. My likely less than mathematically accurate count determined that a full third of those present were homeless – a majority of them white males in their 20s. Though I saw the “typical” street person – raggedy, elderly, or appearing “down and out” – most of those I saw appeared able-bodied young people who were “up and out,” as in high and happy to be out on the streets.

I saw and smelled the reason for these up and outers. Marijuana. The signs were literal – and creative and grammatically correct:

  • “Too ugly to prostitute. Too fat to strip. Anything helps.”
  • “My pipe is lonely, it needs a bud.”
  • “I need weed, alcohol, cash.”

I heard the pleas:

  • “Hey, do you have any leftovers you could spare for a hungry young man?”
  • “Do you have any cash you could give me? Six dollars more is all I need to buy a guitar.”

I heard the music, some on guitar, one playing drums on pots and pans – a few doing something to earn the cash tossed their way.

Though the signs and the asking were overt – even though I walked through some clouds of smoke on the streets – I was more fascinated and saddened than afraid or annoyed, at least for the most part. Just before I left for Denver, the news had reported that the homeless were flocking to the city – not so much for the view or the nice hair days or the accommodations – but for the marijuana now legal in Colorado.

For me, seeing these homeless was believing. The news report was correct.

Mere steps from the confines of my luxury hotel and conference meetings, I encountered small congregations of homeless young men. Performing, approaching, asking. Holding signs. Scenting the streets with weed. Staring blankly or approaching me with hyper, gregarious petitions. In them, I saw lack of motivation, not lack of ability. The former English teacher in me applauded the good grammar and creativity I saw in the cardboard signs they held. In every convenience or drug store I entered, I saw crowds of people that would scare me in the dark. The presence of security guards supervising didn’t make me feel much better. I admit I clutched my purse closely. To me, it seemed clear that marijuana had been a downer for Denver and these young people whose lives were so devastated by the drug.

Early in the week, when I returned to a meeting after a lunch period of walking through the pedestrian mall, one of the other conference attenders and I discussed what we had just seen.

“Oh, what could be so terrible at home for these young people that they would prefer to live in the streets? I hope I never drive my children to that…” she said, plaintively.

Rather smug in my news-fed knowledge, I returned, “It’s not that their home lives are that bad – it’s that marijuana is legal here.”

Which is what I think.

And what others testify.

And what my senses seem to confirm.

But maybe the home lives of these homeless was that terrible. Maybe these people at least think they have no alternative. Maybe the economy is so bad that young, able men resort to the streets and the drugs they find there. Maybe my view of these homeless was skewed by news reports that gave me the context of marijuana as the reason for this mass homelessness.

Or maybe marijuana does draw young people to prefer homelessness to druglessness.

Whichever it is, I don’t like the result and don’t know the solution.

What about you?

4 thoughts on “Legalizing homelessness?

    1. I agree, Jon. My question — as I am not a regular traveler to Denver (or Seattle, which I just left) — is did marijuana cause this homelessness or worsen it? I hear other cities — New Orleans, Portland, etc. — have large homeless populations as well. What is the root of the problem? Thanks for commenting!


  1. We had four bankers out here to visit our company in northern Idaho just last week from Denver. They confirmed what you observed, young men with no greater ambition than smoking a joint on a sidewalk. They truely are ruining the city.


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