People are uprooting their lives to flock to Pueblo county, Colorado, where legal weed, Medicaid expansion and very low cost of living have created the perfect storm. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Oct 20, 2015
The Guardian - Drawn to the city’s legal weed and low cost of living, families across the US travel to Pueblo looking to make a new life. But not everyone strikes it rich.
In cars stuffed with clothes, boxes and furniture precariously tied to car roofs, they come to sit patiently in waiting rooms at social service agencies, in soup kitchens and motels.
They’ve made it to Pueblo, Colorado, a city of just over 100,000 where recreational marijuana sales became legal in 2014.
The new arrivals aren’t on a so-called “weedcation”
to visit the swath of new pot shops and spots with weed-tasting menus, which are now sprinkled throughout the state. Instead, they hope to settle and make a new life in the pot industry.
The overstuffed vehicles parked outside Pueblo’s Posada, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless families, have license plates from as far away as South Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Texas.
Those families have come in what social service agencies here see as a perfect storm: legal marijuana, Colorado’s Medicaid expansion (which extends coverage to all qualified adults under the 2010 Affordable Care Act), and Pueblo’s ranking as one of the least expensive cities to live in the US.
On the state’s southern plains, Pueblo was once an industrial stronghold, a company town of steelworkers employed by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.
Like many towns devastated by the steel-market crash of 1982, Pueblo has never really recovered; its main employers are now the town’s hospitals and nearby prisons. The county’s unemployment rate in May was one of the state’s highest, at 7.2%, according to the Colorado division of labor and employment. The unemployment rate statewide in May was 4.3%.
According to caseworkers at social service agencies, the newcomers are mostly from southern states where governors oppose expanding Medicaid to those with no insurance. Many arrive in town with little money and the expectation that they will easily find food, housing and a job in the marijuana industry.
“In September, we helped 1,145 families and 3,214 individuals”, says Edie De La Torre, executive director of Pueblo’s Cooperative Care Center, which was founded by area churches in the wake of the steel mill closing in the mid-1980s. “We gave out $139,784 in food. These were our highest numbers ever.”
“It used to be that we helped a lot of people who were stretched very thin,” she says. “Maybe they had lost a job or were working two jobs that didn’t pay a lot … Now we have people coming in from out of state who call us and say they’re staying at a motel, they need food or maybe their medication, but they aren’t residents of Pueblo County. We don’t turn them away. But we tell them that if they’re going to come back, they need to prove that they reside in Pueblo County.”
On a recent weekday, the line stretched around the block when the agency opened at 9am.
“I had a wall I was building come down on my foot, and it got stuck,” says a man in Cooperative Care’s waiting room. “I can’t work right now, so this place is really helping me. I used to bring stuff here to donate; I’m born and bred in Pueblo. Now look at me.”
Another couple said they were there because of “hard times”, but weren’t from Pueblo. When asked about coming to town for legal marijuana, they didn’t answer.
“A good 25% of the people coming in for help are from Texas,” says Mona Montoya, Cooperative Care’s director of operations. “A lot of people will give me a copy of their medical marijuana card or will just say ‘Hey, I’ll be honest with you, I came here to get into the industry’.”
Montoya says that the hardest thing is seeing kids, who have no choice when their parents decide to come to Pueblo. “Just last week I heard a little girl ask her mom if they were going to eat that day,” she says.
“I call it the pot rush,” says Anne Stattelman, director of Pueblo’s Posada. “Many people leave stable situations and maybe even have housing vouchers where they’re from. But they hear about Pueblo on the internet and how it’s this cheap place to live. They think they can find jobs. They uproot their kids. And then they don’t have money for a rental deposit or much else when they get here.”
Though many are leaning heavily on social service agencies, some of these newcomers to Pueblo get settled on their own.
“We’re from Oklahoma,” say two young men aged 22 and 23 as they stood outside their RV in Pueblo West. “Yeah, we came here because pot is legal,” one of them said, standing near their legal grow. “But we’ve already been to social services to get our Medicaid cards and have some calls in for jobs next week.”
But for many others, the road to self-sufficiency is more difficult.
“We’ve had people passing through,” said a young woman named April, who, along with two other homeless campers, has built a small camp hidden by a canopy of trees near the banks of the Arkansas river.
She said she had been there since last winter and used discarded shipping pallets to insulate the bottom of the camp’s tents from the snow. “I give them a place to stay for while, but then they move on,” she said of the travelers coming to Pueblo, explaining that she had gotten stuck here a few years back when she and her husband were on their way to California from Ohio.
April and her friends are part of the growing population of Pueblo’s homeless who intersect with those moving here for legal marijuana.
Often these chronic homeless have drug addictions, mental illness or other problems that have led to them living in these camps or squatting in condemned buildings, according to Stattelman, who goes out weekly with an outreach team of case workers, nurses and counselors to them to make available services for food and shelter.
But despite the drain on social services, the legal marijuana industry is seen by some as a boon for the struggling local economy, where developers and county commissioners believe it has the potential to be the the Silicon Valley of marijuana.
Thousands of acres east of Pueblo’s city limits, where the Pueblo city council voted no in May on allowing recreational dispensaries, are being evaluated as the home of new, state-of-the-art grow operations that could provide the area much-needed jobs.
In June, the state recorded $60.7m in recreational pot sales to date for the year. In Pueblo County in 2014, the first year of legal sales, pot brought in $16.28m and resulted in $1.3m in sales tax and licensing fees.
And for the first time since the first legal sale of marijuana in the state in January 2014, the pot industry surpassed $100m in monthly sales for the month of August, the Colorado department of revenue announced 9 October.
The Pueblo County commissioner and former Colorado state representative, Sal Pace, said that legalization has been an engine for economic growth for the area, citing that 36% of county construction projects in the last year have been related to the marijuana industry.
“There’s another time in Pueblo’s history when people came looking for jobs, and that’s when the steel mill was booming,” he says. “During the California gold rush, people who moved out here were not seen as a sign of failure, but a sign that it was something good for the economy.”
Pace also points to Ballot Issue No 1B, which county voters will decide on 3 November, along with other marijuana-related measures. If passed, it will impose a phased-in 5% excise tax on the sale of retail marijuana, with half of the proceeds going to a college scholarship fund for Pueblo County residents and the rest divided among funding to study medical marijuana, to fund a marijuana community impact, as well as a host of infrastructure improvements.
“The question I ask is ‘Has pot made Pueblo safer, better, or more prosperous?’” says Stattelman. “I have no problem with pot,” she says. “If the entire country legalizes, I say go for it. I understand that everyone didn’t see these unintended consequences. But now that it’s happened, we need help.
She says they gave a presentation to the city council in spring 2014 about the issues they were seeing with pot, asking for support with sending new arrivals home. Posada, a nonprofit, relies on a mix of grants, donors, and federal, state and local funding.
But Pace does not see evidence that this influx is pot-related. “Until I see hard numbers, I’m not going to consider someone who’s a prohibitionist give information because of their bias or subjective views,” he says.
Stattelman disagrees, pointing out that many people who arrive in Pueblo for jobs in the pot industry are not homeless when they arrive. “People come to Pueblo for opportunity that is not here,” she says. Last month, she decided to post guidelines on Posada’s website for those who are looking to seek a new life here so they know what to expect.
Still, Pueblo County sends a welcoming message on its website to all who might want to relocate.
“So come check us out. If you are just here for a tour of the ‘Rocky Mountain high’, you’re more than welcome. But we also have a rich history and heritage that we’d love to share with you while you explore this ‘new frontier’ for yourself.”