Medical marijuana users are being shut out of public housing

By Emma Ockerman for Vice News

“From a civil rights perspective, you’re denying a whole class of people housing that have already been denied other aspects of living their life to the fullest potential because of the federal prohibition on cannabis.” - David Mangone

Cancer patients and other people with debilitating conditions are being forced to choose between medical marijuana and federal public housing assistance.

Even though some of the most conservative states are passing laws legalizing medical weed, marijuana is still a Schedule I controlled substance on a federal level, along with heroin and ecstasy, which can make users ineligible for programs like rental assistance or public housing.

Lily Fisher, a 55-year-old breast cancer survivor in Montana, learned that first-hand when she saw her application for a Section 8 rental assistance voucher rejected in August after revealing that she was using medical marijuana to treat her pain, according to the Billings Gazette. Section 8 is a federal program that subsidizes rent for low-income Americans.

In August, another woman seeking Section 8 assistance in Pennsylvanialearned the same about the marijuana she uses to treat her back pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. And a third woman, in Arcata, California, was evicted from her federally-subsidized apartment in July after a maintenance worker spotted her legal stash of medicinal edibles, according to the local Times-Standard.

These women are facing homelessness due to the conflict between state and federal law on pot.

“From a civil rights perspective, you’re denying a whole class of people housing that have already been denied other aspects of living their life to the fullest potential because of the federal prohibition on cannabis,” said David Mangone, director of governmental affairs and counsel for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

The majority of states now allow some form of medicinal marijuana. Americans overwhelmingly favor legalizing the drug for medical use. And in New York State — which hosts North America’s largest public housing population — medical marijuana is permitted to treat debilitating conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a memorandum in 2011 saying new admission applications revealing legal marijuana use would be denied, no matter the circumstance. However, the memorandum gave local landlords and public housing authorities the right to determine whether they should evict existing residents for medical marijuana use.

It’s not clear how many public housing authorities have sided with tenants on the local level, nor how many applicants have been rejected due to federal marijuana laws. But as more states normalize marijuana locally, it can make users ineligible for federal programs, like housing assistance.

When the 2011 memorandum was issued, 14 states had legalized medical marijuana. Now, 31 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes, and the drug is becoming a viable alternative for patients that don’t want to use opioid drugs, many of whom are elderly or disabled.

“There’s a much larger population now that’s affected by this guidance,” Mangone said.

Fisher’s name was removed from the waiting list and she’ll have to reapply if she wants public housing, according to the Gazette’s report on Monday.

“I can’t pay the rent, and it takes money to move,” Fisher told the Billings Gazette. She’s living on disability payments and recently received an eviction notice from her current landlord. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.

Mary Cease, the Pennsylvania woman who was denied access to a Section 8 housing voucher, is 66 years old and was using opioids to treat her pain before she discovered medical marijuana. She’s a disabled veteran, and her ailments have kept her from working for more than 15 years. She makes about $10,000 a year. 

“It’s a crazy thing to do to an old woman who has no criminal background, and who owes nobody anything, and is living in a place where you cannot expand your mind,” Cease told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.

Judith Cassel, Harrisburg-based attorney with Cannabis Law PA, is representing Cease on a pro-bono basis and said Cease is already living in federally subsidized housing through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s assistance program. However, when she wanted to move to Indiana County, Pennsylvania, her new application was denied due to her medical marijuana status.

“No one should have to choose between staying off opioids and a roof over their head,” Cassel said.

A spokesman for HUD noted that their policies haven’t changed since the 2011 memorandum; they’re unable to reconsider their policy until federal laws regarding marijuana change. As long as marijuana remains a controlled substance, the rules “still apply, even where state law allows for its use,” Brian Sullivan, HUD spokesman, said in an email.

In June, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting Democrat representing the District of Columbia, introduced legislation that would allow residents in federally subsidized housing to use legal medical or recreational marijuana in their homes.

“Individuals who live in states where medical and/or recreational marijuana is legal, but live in federally-assisted housing, should have the same access to treatment as their neighbors,” Norton said at the time.

In April 2017, an Anacostia-based apartment complex located in a historically black, low-income D.C. neighborhood posted signs that warned some tenants that marijuana use around the property would violate the terms of their lease, according to Cannabis Wire.

If they were caught, they’d get a “cure or quit” notice to either “fix the problem” within 30 days or leave the property entirely. If the residents were receiving federal subsidies, however, they wouldn’t be allowed “an opportunity to cure this violation.”