Marijuana Refugees: Looking for a New Homes in Pot-Legal States


Mohamad Halabi wraps his daughter, Mia, in a blanket outside the Denver International Airport after the family arrived from New York last October. Mia has a chance at a normal life using a cannabis oil made from Charlotte's Web, a strain of marijuana high in cannabidiol, that can stop or reduce seizures. Michael Ciaglo / AP

They are known as "marijuana refugees" -- people who have relocated or are planning to move because pot is now legal in some states.

Moriah Barnhart is one of them, though with two young children in tow, it wasn't something she had planned for.

But within weeks of her 2-year-old daughter, Dahlia, being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, Barnhart packed the family's bags. They moved from Tampa, Fla., to Memphis, Tenn., last June so her toddler could undergo treatment at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. While there, Barnhart's research pointed her to medical marijuana as a worthy treatment to inhibit the cancer and mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy.

"It just was the safest and most viable, effective option," she said. "But it was illegal in Tennessee and in Florida."

So just before Christmas, the Barnhart family was on the road once again, this time to Colorado Springs, Colo. Now, Dahlia gets a small dose daily of a nonpsychoactive hemp oil strain called Phoenix Tears—and, her nother says, she is back to being a happy toddler, even as her cancer battle and chemo treatments continue.

Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia have given the green light to treat certain medical conditions with marijuana; Colorado and Washington residents voted in 2012 to decriminalize recreational use. Several other states, including New York and Florida, could see medical marijuana laws on the books this year.

It's tough to gauge the rate of marijuana-inspired moves. Just 0.4 percent of people who moved in the year ended July 1, 2013, said they did so for health reasons, according to the Census Bureau. That's down from 2 percent who said so in 2011. And although census data put Colorado and Washington among the top 10 interstate move destinations last year, both states' population growth rates are on par with those of previous years.

At least anecdotally, advocates say they're hearing from plenty of families who want in. "As soon as we have the intake form up, we're swamped with requests," said Lindsey Rinehart, co-founder of Undergreen Railroad, which helps people raise money and organize interstate moves to medical marijuana-friendly states. Rinehart is herself a marijuana refugee, having moved from Idaho to Oregon last summer to treat her multiple sclerosis.

Since last fall, the group's nine volunteers have arranged four family moves—one each to California and Oregon, and two to Colorado—with six more in the works. "Idaho, Tennessee and Wisconsin are the states we get the most requests from, to leave," said Rinehart.

Realm of Caring Foundation, whose nonpsychoactive cannabis strain Charlotte's Web is popular among pediatric epilepsy patients, has seen even more demand. The nonprofit says more than 100 families have moved to Colorado for Charlotte's Web, and nearly 200 more are on a waiting list with intent to move when more supply becomes available.

"These are people who don't travel on vacation, they can't even take a Make-a-Wish Trip … but they've had to move," said spokeswoman Paige Figi.

Despite the interest, when push comes to shove marijuana refugees may find that relocating isn't easy—or effective. State laws permitting medical marijuana use are often restrictive, limiting dispensary locations and approving use only for certain conditions, said Diane Fornbacher, publisher of Ladybud Magazine. That's why she plans to move her family from one state with a medical marijuana law (New Jersey) to another (Colorado) this spring.

"I don't qualify under New Jersey programs," said Fornbacher, who has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. "We're moving for that reason. I would like to be medicated."

Even in Colorado and Washington, where recreational use is allowed, some areas are more open than others.

"I'm bursting people's bubbles on a daily basis," said Colorado real estate broker Bob Costello. He noted many out-of-staters who call to inquire about property listings are unaware of state laws that limit growing to six plants—no more than half of which can be mature flowering plants—and that permit local governments to limit or ban pot retail.

Consumers may also find exclusions of certain kinds of properties. Communities with homeowners associations might prohibit growing, and condo and co-op boards generally frown on any kind of smoke that seeps through ducts into neighboring properties, he said. Would-be tenants may also find that landlords prohibit smoking of any kind.

Then, of course, there are the usual moving considerations. Families aren't likely to be looking solely for proximity to dispensaries, said Jed Kolko, chief economist for "Often, for lots of people in a home search, school districts and low crime are both important," he said. Commute time to work, proximity to family and friends and overall affordability also matter.

That last attribute can be particularly tricky. Many marijuana refugees are already dealing with expensive medical conditions and need help from fund-raisers and sponsors to make the move. In some cases, the move splits families, with some members staying behind to hold down jobs, Figi said. "It's a tough decision to make," she said.

It doesn't help that many of the states where marijuana use is allowed are also those that have higher costs of living. According to CNBC's America's Top States for Business 2013, none of the 10 states with the lowest cost of living has legalized marijuana. Of the 10 with the highest, nine have medical marijuana laws—Hawaii, Alaska, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont—and the only holdout, New York, is taking steps to follow suit. Washington and Colorado aren't cheap, either. In the rankings, just 14 states had a higher cost of living than Washington; 18 were pricier than Colorado.