Experts Claim Cannabis To Be The Reason For Psychosis in Homeless. Not Quite.

Matt Weeks October 18, 2019 0 comments

Cannabis has long been mislabeled as the culprit for psychosis in homeless populations.

Since the beginning of legalization efforts, skeptics have sought to tie cannabis to bad elements in society — anything negative will do. First, it was Reefer Madness, then it was violence, and now crime. When crime rates dropped, they tried to get us to fret about teens becoming addicted if cannabis was widely available. When teen cannabis use went lower in legal states, they started gnashing their teeth about mental health. The latest incarnation is a ‘concern’ that cannabis is not only increasing homeless rate, it is causing psychosis in the homeless.

The naysayers have scoured data showing that some legalized states have seen homeless numbers increase. Bingo, they thought. The two must be related! Right?

psychosis in homeless man sleeping

The Campaign Against Cannabis

After Colorado legalized cannabis in 2013, the homeless rate ticked up about 8%. Since the data emerged about similar jumps in other legal states, some pundits and politicians have made it a point of pride to point out the correlation in a suggestive matter. (For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development says homelessness in Washington state increased 18.9% from 2013 to 2017.)

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The anti-pot logic uses homelessness data to support its argument in two ways. The first goes like this: Because we see a jump in the number of homeless people in states that have legalized cannabis, cannabis must be to blame. Cannabis causes homelessness.

The second one is this: Legal weed is so appealing that it brings already homeless people to legalized states, because they want to use cannabis legally.  Cannabis is a big draw for a new homeless life.

In one instance, Tom Leurhs, executive director of the St. Francis Center in Denver, Colorado, said: ‘We are seeing people who were homeless in other states coming here specifically because they can get marijuana here.” Leurhs further says that “others come here thinking they can get a job in the marijuana industry, and then they can’t get a job as quickly as they thought, and they end up homeless.”

This is just an explanation of the logic. For the record, none of it is true.

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coat and sleeping area of homeless person

The Data on Cannabis and Homelessness

A report from the Reason Foundation tells the real story behind the numbers.

If cannabis legalization increases poverty-related problems such as psychosis in homeless people, crime rates, and homelessness, we should expect to see a predictable pattern when new states adopt similar policies. These upticks should, also, be confined to legalized states.

However, that’s not the case.

The legalized cannabis states’ homelessness numbers have moved at similar rates to their neighbors, on average. For example, non-legalized states Idaho and Wyoming saw their homeless rates increase 14.4% and 15.3% during the same period.

Oregon, which also legalized cannabis, saw a homelessness increase of only 0.9% from 2013-2017.

The data just doesn’t justify a causal link between legalizing cannabis and a growing homeless population. Any way you slice it, it comes up short.

A Deeper Dive

What’s more, Georgia Tech has published a peer-reviewed predictive model explaining the growth of the homeless population. The model is reliable and consistent across state lines. And, as it turns out, cannabis legalization has no real relationship to homelessness.

Much more important are wages and real estate prices. It makes sense, doesn’t it? When wages are stagnant and rent goes up, fewer people can afford homes. Some of them then become homeless.

But the anti-pot activists have something right. The government can play a role in reducing the homeless population. It won’t happen by outlawing legal cannabis, though. It can happen by much less dramatic policies. These include raising the minimum wage, increasing the social safety net, keeping housing prices down by getting rid of tariffs, etc.

psychosis in homeless girl

Psychosis in Homeless People: Is it a Problem?

There is another point that pundits make.  They claim cannabis causes psychosis in homeless people.

Is it true? It’s not entirely clear, because the data is hard to come by. But, let’s be real, it probably does not.

Mental illness problems among the homeless population are well documented. From undiagnosed disorders, to schizophrenia, and everything in between, many homeless people find themselves in dire straits largely because of their mental states. It’s a sad story, but one that bears true across the world — even in countries with strict anti-pot laws.

In other words, this isn’t a cannabis problem. Psychosis in homeless people is an age-old problem. The solution is better access to care, removing barriers to mental health treatments, better understanding of the struggles homeless people face, and public policies that support and develop the down-and-out until they can get back on their feet.

Pundits like to tie in weed with alcohol under the banner of addiction — as if they’re the same. And while this is a convenient explanation for psychosis in homeless people, it’s not the underlying problem.

In fact, most homeless people in the United States are children. They’re not addicts. They were simply born unlucky.

It’s time to concentrate on real problems instead of using cannabis as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills.

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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