The governor proposes drawing $12.3 million from state tax proceeds on recreational marijuana to build housing units for both chronic and episodic homelessness. Marijuana is poured into a bowl in the back room of a Colorado dispensary before it is placed in one-gram packages for retail sale. (Denver Post file)

Directing some Colorado pot tax money to homeless programs is a good call

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has a plan for dealing with rising homelessness that we hope lawmakers will take seriously in the coming legislative session.

For the need is real. It’s not just a feeling that more and more homeless are appearing on our streets and urban trails. According to federal statistics, Colorado saw a 6 percent increase in homelessness in 2016, a rise that is among the fastest in the country. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates the Colorado homeless population to be more than 10,000, well below the state’s supply of 7,000 beds meant to deal with the issue.

In Denver, the problem has led to large homeless camps near a downtown shelter. The Downtown Denver Partnership this year even hired a private security firm to deal with more aggressive panhandling, and police have added more officers to the area.

Yet the challenges remain.

The governor proposes drawing $12.3 million from state tax proceeds on recreational marijuana to build housing units for both chronic and episodic homelessness, as recently reported by The Denver Post’s John Frank. Another $6 million a year would bolster housing for low-income residents and those with behavioral needs.

That’s serious money, and it would be directed to the kinds of tried-and-tested programs geared to getting folks off the streets and into stable environments that can be life-changing. As a former Denver mayor who has seen how difficult it can be to tackle homeless issues, Hickenlooper is tying his on-the-ground experience to a funding stream that seems more than appropriate.

The plan — with its focus on job training, addiction counseling and services for the mentally ill — strikes us as one that could do some real, noticeable good. And as Hickenlooper’s budget director, Henry Sobanet, tells us, this is a strategy that could be flexible in its ongoing scope and size.

Yes, of the many factors that lead to homelessness, pot isn’t a leader. Other, more addictive drugs — and alcohol — do worse damage.

But Colorado voters haven’t objected to the state’s taxing strategy on legal cannabis sales, and the kind of revision needed to tap the current statutory spending formula wouldn’t take a heavy lift. Beyond the $40 million in tax collection from pot sales that voters agreed to send to school construction programs, the statutory rules allow for money to go to health care, substance abuse prevention and treatment programs and law enforcement.

Meanwhile, there is no question that legal marijuana has attracted some outsiders who contribute to the street-corner challenges that so often serve as the face of the homeless. And while the great majority of those experiencing homelessness are dealing with other issues, it’s easy to see how pot money used under Hickelooper’s proposal could create far more concrete and reliable solutions than prevention campaigns targeted at college kids.

We hope this one’s a keeper, and look forward to experiencing its results.

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