By Elizabeth Harrell, Events Coordinator
The legalization of marijuana for recreational use has long been contentious. Some proponents argue that legalization of marijuana has many positive impacts, including increased state revenue through taxation, and in the long-run will lessen the burden on the criminal justice system. Opponents argue that marijuana has negative public health impacts and will give rise to increased marijuana use, among others. This new territory of legalization has also brought to light new areas of contention that neither party initially considered: the increased potential vulnerability of street youths to human trafficking.
Amendment 64 was approved in November 2012, making Colorado the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana. The law permits individuals over the age of 21 to purchase and possess up to one ounce of marijuana in licensed retail stores for private and personal use. Impact assessments of the legislation have been fairly mixed. As the legislation is fairly recent, it is difficult to ascertain the law’s full impacts on Colorado, and it will take several years before this can be determined.
One unanticipated consequence of the law, however, is that within the past year, one local service provider, Prax(us), has come into contact with more street youths who claim to have come to Colorado solely because of marijuana. Prax(us) is a non profit organization that works with street youths who are highly vulnerable to, or currently experiencing, exploitation and/or situations of trafficking.
Mary Durant, Executive Director of Prax(us), notes that during street outreach over spring and summer of 2013 she personally came into contact with ten new street-based individuals who reported they had come specifically to Colorado either to work in the marijuana industry, or to smoke marijuana recreationally without fear of recourse, despite legal age restrictions on marijuana use. She estimates that this number may be higher, as she is unable to reach every street in Denver where these youths may congregate.
Mary notes that these individuals reported having no resources such as housing and did not how to access these needs. One youth she came into contact with on 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian retail area in downtown Denver, reported he had come to Colorado initially for recreational marijuana use, but disclosed that he was homeless and alone, did not know where he was, had no resources or any idea how to access resources. Despite this, he has no intentions of leaving Denver.
Mary finds these interactions alarming, noting that legalized marijuana is not the issue itself, rather the vulnerability that arises because the appeal of it may drive highly vulnerable populations to Colorado that are at greater risk of exploitation and human trafficking. While it is uncertain how many of these individuals are currently experiencing exploitative situations, Prax(us) observes that when individuals lack survival resources such as food, shelter and money, they are more likely to end up in human trafficking situations to meet those needs. As many of these individuals are new to the area and have not yet made relationships with other street individuals who may be able to direct them in accessing resources, this further exacerbates their vulnerability, which exploiters prey on.
Unintended consequences arise with any piece of legislation, and it is critical to address how these may be remedied so as to reduce potential harm to individuals. Service providers should routinely analyze the populations they serve and discuss how to more effectively address the vulnerabilities of their constituents.
It is vital that service providers identify and reach out to this new demographic, so as to support these individuals and help them stay safe. Mary suggests that some action steps service providers can take include making early and frequent street contact, educating these individuals, and connecting them to resources.
Service providers provide a unique vantage point that should be taken into consideration when evaluating the impacts of any legislation, as they work directly with individuals whom the law impacts. Through greater collaboration, service providers and policy makers may promote safety and dignity for all.
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