What do Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have in common? They are all major cities on the West Coast and they all have the most severe housing shortages in the nation. In fact, the rapidly growing homeless population in cities like LA is responsible for the first national increase in homelessness in nearly a decade.
The reasons for the swell in homelessness on the West Coast are simple – increased rent and lack of affordable housing. In Los Angeles, city officials are currently implementing measures to assuage the rising population of homeless people but a recent Housing Gaps Analysis showed that even with these efforts the growth of homelessness is outpacing the most ambitious efforts to solve the problem. At this rate, the city could still fall $270 million short of addressing the issue.
What else do Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have in common? As of 2016, they are all cities with blossoming recreational marijuana industries, meaning more tax revenues for their states. Governor Jerry Brown said he expects the first year of legalization to bring $643 million in tax revenue to the Golden State.
At this crossroads where West Coast cities are seeing an increase in affluence and homelessness, here is a radical idea: let’s provide incentives for entrepreneurs in cannabis to build the shelters themselves.
Actually, this idea is not so new. The summer before Proposition 64 passed, Los Angeles, desperate for ways to fund its homeless initiatives, considered the idea of using the tax revenue from the legal cannabis industry. It was the nature of the beast, the regulations still under development and the complications therein that prevented that idea from moving forward.
Realistically, it will take several years before the tax revenue from legal pot in California is substantial enough to answer the needs of the homeless. Those estimates, of course, assume the homeless population plateaus in the next few years. That seems less than likely.
Another option besides using tax revenue is to incorporate efforts towards solving the homeless crisis into the regulations for the cannabis industry.
Let’s use Los Angeles as an example. In early March, the city approved an additional 21 employees for the previously understaffed Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR). The DCR is in the process of developing and implementing a social equity program, which will give priority to victims of the War on Drugs when it comes to licensing their businesses.
Under Los Angeles’ Social Equity Program, retail and non-retail businesses can apply for priority licensing status if they qualify for one of three tiers. Tier 1 applicants must be low-income, have marijuana convictions, and live in areas disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. Tier 2 applicants must be low-income and live in vulnerable areas, but do not need a marijuana conviction in order to qualify.
The third tier in the program provides the opportunity to make a difference because DCR employees are in the midst of developing the rules for those applicants. Currently, Tier 3 applicants qualify by providing benefits like licensing assistance, business advice, and investment access to applicants in Tiers 1 and 2.
So, why not add a qualification that encourages Tier 3 applicants to construct temporary and permanent homeless shelters?
This construction could start immediately if the City Council passed an emergency resolution allowing Tier 3 applicants to qualify for the Social Equity program by contributing construction and electrical work to the Los Angeles’ homeless initiative.
Providing Tier 3 applicants in Los Angeles with incentives to build shelters is one solution to this problem, but much more work and money will be needed to address the rise in homelessness. There is no reason why the marijuana industry cannot play a more significant role in addressing this crisis.
After all, there is a certain poetic justice to connecting these two issues. For example, according to federal law, Public Housing Authorities can deny public housing to people with felony convictions, including marijuana-related charges.
What does this mean? Take San Francisco, where more than half of its homeless have no place to sleep at night. In February, San Francisco made the commendable decision to dismiss or reduce all marijuana convictions dating back to 1975. That means 5,000 marijuana-related felony cases in San Francisco could be reduced to misdemeanors. However, that also means these 5,000 individuals would have been barred from public housing until quite recently.
At the center of the homeless crisis is a question of humanity; what does it mean when the richest cities in the nation have the highest rates of homelessness? Homeless populations have been viewed with the same derision as drug users and dealers. Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, wrote that “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.” Isolation is a common complaint between homeless people and drug addicts, which is all the more reason to unite these two issues.
Nearly 5 years after Colorado passed recreational marijuana, revenue from that industry funded a homeless center in Aurora. Unlike shelters which provide a place for homeless people to sleep at night, this center keeps its doors open in the daytime, providing meals, showers, services, and community to those who need it.
Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle need to go a step further. In addition to providing temporary and permanent shelters, more efforts need to be made to provide childcare, medical treatment, food, mental health services, and overall support. And certainly, those in the cannabis industry are inventive enough to develop more affordable housing options in their cities.
Building shelters without providing these additional services is simply putting a Band-Aid on the problem. Homeless populations also face public health crises like the recent hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego and higher rates of addiction and mental health disorders. These cities need to also recruit psychologists and nurses providing treatment and harm reduction resources like safe-injection rooms and naloxone. (Of course, these cities must also create places where public consumption of marijuana is allowed, since that has proven itself to be the best armor against the opioid epidemic.)
It is time to reconcile the fact that increased affluence will lead to increased rates of homelessness if steps are not taken to prevent it. Legal cannabis isn’t the only reason why major West Coast cities are becoming more expensive – and therefore, more unaffordable to vulnerable people – but it is an important factor.
By encouraging entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry to provide housing and services, we can reduce the stigma around marijuana and homelessness. And, in a few more years, these cities can start using the tax revenue from their successful pot industries to foot more of the bill.
Article collaborated and written by Allison Margolin and Erin Williams
Allison Margolin is a cannabis licensing and criminal defense attorney who has been a vocal critic of the drug war since 1989. Erin Williams is a writer and researcher. Together, they are writing a book that they hope will end the drug war.