Alabaster Pizzo

IT’S ESTIMATED that on any night, Portland has nearly 4,000 people either sleeping in shelters or on the street. Adjust those numbers to include those couch surfing, camping in cars, and those in transitional housing, and the number skyrockets to more than 16,000. The explosion of ramshackle tents and lean-tos along Portland city streets, highways, and parks is both a shameful disgrace and a tragedy that has been weighing heavily on my heart and mind this year.

What does that have to do with cannabis? Well, lately I’ve seen a number of handmade signs asking for money for weed, or simply: “Spare nugs?”

So where should you stand on these types of requests? Much like addressing our homelessness crisis, I’m not sure I have any clear answers.

My general belief about most things deemed “vices” is that as long as you are an adult and your choices don’t negatively impact others, you should do as you see fit with your life. An exception would be if the vice in question becomes an addiction to the point that health issues develop and one’s life begins to unravel.

I’ve personally never known cannabis to be such a vice in anyone’s life, but that’s not to say it hasn’t happened.

As a licensed caregiver through the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program for nearly 10 years, however, I can attest firsthand to the healing and comforting properties of cannabis in its many forms, and for a wider array of ailments than I can list. It can be a great tool for dealing with the physical and psychic pains of being without a home, in addition to helping with stress, fear, anxiety, and depression. Cannabis can also be an invaluable tool in harm reduction. For those seeking to reduce or eliminate opioid use and abuse, or to curb excessive alcohol consumption, many will find relief in cannabis’ numerous forms.

I’m not alone in this thinking. In December 2015, a Denver based non-profit called Cannabis Can gave away 1,000 pre-rolled joints to the homeless population. The goal was to raise awareness and support for their plan of purchasing several RVs to provide showers and restrooms to those in need.

However, a crucial step for getting many of our fellow citizens into housing involves getting them employed. And many employers still drug test, so helping someone fail a urine analysis for a job they really, really need isn’t much help at all.

I talked to my girlfriend, who works for an organization that helps the homeless youth population, about these questions. “If you give a homeless person weed,” she told me, “they don’t have any legal place to smoke it, unless they have a housed friend. And because we get government funding, we have to give consequences to people who smoke in any of our spaces, and the same is true for most other organizations that provide services for homeless folks, and for Section 8 housing. You can lose access to shelter, meals, and so on if you decide to smoke on the streets or in the park. And you risk run-ins with law enforcement who don’t always take a super trauma-informed approach to homeless folks in the first place.

“So, I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to give homeless people weed—even if it comes from a really generous place, you might be getting someone into more trouble than it’s worth.”

To make this column even sadder—and yep, it’s about to be—some of our homeless population have preexisting mental health issues, including many of our discarded veterans. And while some people benefit from using cannabis to treat conditions such as PTSD, others do not. In fact, the use of certain strains and concentrated products can exacerbate these conditions, especially when combined with the fragile mental health state brought on by the harsh realities of being homeless.

So when I see someone whose age and health clearly demonstrate that their days of work are over, I’m more inclined to hand them a low-dose edible or a mild-strength pre-roll, along with a couple bucks.

I’d like to see the cannabis industry come together to help raise awareness and funds for addressing this crisis, because it’s something that affects us all. These are dark days, and taking care of one another helps usher in the light. And right about now, I could use a bank of Klieg lights’ worth.