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CSU-Pueblo researchers study links between marijuana and community problems

March 12, 2018 Updated: March 13, 2018 at 8:21 am
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Dylan Aragon of Pueblo smells a container of marijuana at Marisol Gardens in Pueblo West Wednesday, January 1, 2014, before making his first legal purchase of pot. Aragon waited in line starting at 2:30am Wednesday to be the first customer to make a purchase. Retail pot sales became legal at two retail stores in Pueblo Wednesday. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

PUEBLO - A first-of-its-kind study of the impacts of legalized recreational marijuana on society concludes that up to 800 homeless people might be living in Pueblo County because of cannabis-related issues, costing an estimated $23 million annually.

The study was produced by the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University in Pueblo, and released during a Pueblo County commissioners work session Monday afternoon.

Like many of the results of the study, a direct correlation between pot and community problems is tough to prove, researchers said.

"It's pretty darn new, and it's got to be carefully monitored," said Rick Kreminski, executive director of research and related programs for CSU-Pueblo and director of the Institute of Cannabis Research.

"In the report, we mention a lack of high-quality data and the need to get more data," he said.

Mike Wakefield of CSU-Pueblo's Hasan School of Business presented the economic impacts of recreational pot, including the estimated cost of the homeless population reportedly living in Pueblo because of pot, but sociology professor Tim McGettigan said his findings show that a connection between increasing homelessness and legal weed is "more mythology than fact."

Pueblo County has seen a "dramatic increase" in homelessness in recent years, but McGettigan said Black Hills Energy cutting off utilities to more than 7,000 families in Pueblo in 2016 and the skyrocketing real estate market are more likely to blame than weed.

"Blaming homelessness on cannabis is ludicrous," McGettigan said. "The story with homelessness is complicated, and in lots of counties in Colorado homeless numbers have decreased dramatically and other counties have seen increases since legalization. There are probably relationships between cannabis and homeless - some positive and some negative. It begs for more research."

The impact study, which cost $50,000, was funded by voter-approved excise fees on transportation from cultivating businesses to retailers. About 30 CSU-Pueblo faculty, staff and other professionals - and several undergraduate and graduate student researchers - participated in the project.

Among the highlights of the 200-page draft report: Marijuana-related calls for assistance to police have increased three-fold since legalization of recreational marijuana, Wakefield said.

The biggest impacts on crime have been staggering increases in police seizing heroin and in vehicle thefts, said researcher Jennifer Schlosser-Couch, a sociology professor.

Motor vehicle theft saw a 217 percent increase, she said.

The total economic impact of recreational marijuana in Pueblo County is estimated at $35.6 million annually, Wakefield said, with up to 60 percent of recreational pot customers being tourists.

Pueblo County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz said he appreciated "the thorough approach to this multifaceted issue."

His biggest takeaway?

"How much more research we need to do."

Kreminski said policy changes could come out of the study, such as the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office hiring a data analyst to help determine the nature of marijuana-related calls and responses and possible links to criminal activity.

The study, with feedback from county commissioners, will be published by Friday on the research center's website, https://www.csupueblo.edu/institute-of-cannabis-research/index.html.

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