Durango, Colo. was once a picturesque mountain resort town. But the advent of marijuana legalization has reportedly transformed it into a haven for panhandling.
Durango sits near the New Mexico border, and much of its economy is based on its resort status, including its luxury hotels. That prosperity is now being threatened, however, by a recent influx of panhandlers, Fox News reported Wednesday.
According to Durango officials and business owners, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado drew large numbers of transient drug addicts.
Fox documented many people walking Durango's streets, some of whom just ask for marijuana directly or panhandle with a picture of a green marijuana leaf. Vagrants come from New Mexico, Arizona, and even as far as New York to take advantage of Colorado's lax pot laws.
Beyond irritating panhandling, Durango residents attribute more serious social and even criminal problems to marijuana legalization. Loitering and even violence are serious issues, according to Durango business owner Caleb Preston.
"Just this year there has been a major influx of people between 20 to 30 who are just hanging out on the streets," Preston said. "The problem is while many are pretty mellow, there are many more who are violent."
The Durango store manager claims that shoplifting has been a growing issue. Preston, who regularly has to dispel vagrants in front of his store, says that many of those causing problems come from other states, drawn by Colorado's permissive laws.
"Most of the kids here are from out of state, and I would say it has a lot to do with the legalized pot," Preston said.
Not just marijuana users are coming to Durango.
"[The] city really started freaking out when they started seeing needles in the streets," Durango resident Matthew Marinseck told Fox.
On May 12, Durango's Business Improvement District held a meeting to review a survey of local businesses on how to address the panhandling problem. Suggested solutions included strategically placing tables, flower boxes, and other obstacles to block potential loitering and signs discouraging panhandling.
Durango is limited in its ability to address the problems posed by the panhandling presence for its coming tourist season, however. The city recently settled a lawsuit, litigated by the American Civil Liberties Union, allowing the homeless to panhandle.
Help from the police is also currently absent from Durango's arsenal. There is no notable police presence in Durango's downtown, according to Fox. Kamran Afzal, the city's police chief, has only been on the job a month and is still determining the best strategy to police the town.
Afzal freely admitted that the city's problems are substantial: the property crime in Durango is 12 percent higher than the national average. But Afzal qualified that he could not name the cause of that heightened rate.
"At this point, since I'm new here, I can't definitively say this number is related to our homeless population," the police chief said.
Afzal was also unwilling to explicitly tie the influx of panhandlers to the legalization of marijuana.
"We are going to look at the behavior of individuals who cause discomfort for residents and visitors," he said, using a Community Engagement Team.
One clerk at a local hotel who chose not to give her name to Fox said the problem has gotten out of hand.
"I've lived here my entire life and don't feel safe here anymore," the clerk said. "If it wasn't so beautiful here, I would probably move."