Culture

How Federal Housing Policy Excludes Poor People From Legal Pot

As long as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, there will continue to be a stark economic and racial divide between those who can use legal weed and those who are essentially still living under prohibition. Spencer Platt/Getty

Sondra Battle was fed up. Every time something needed to be repaired in the Washington D.C. grandmother’s federally-subsidized apartment, it seemed to take an ungodly number of phone calls to make it happen. The mold was the last straw. Last spring, after she says her resident manager refused to send anyone to remove the black mold covering the wall behind her kitchen cabinets, Battle began tweeting and issuing formal complaints to anyone that would listen: local activists, public agencies, the mayor’s office.

Within days, a manager took action, only not the kind she was expecting: suddenly, there was a notice put up in the building announcing that any resident found to be using marijuana, whether medical or otherwise, could be evicted with no chance for appeal.

Battle was shocked. Everyone in the building knew that she used cannabis instead of opioids to treat the chronic pain associated with her fibromyalgia.

“It felt directed toward me,” she says. Still, she had a doctor’s recommendation, and Washington D.C. had legalized the recreational use of marijuana back in 2014. Could she really still be evicted on the pretext of a little pot?

As it turns out, she could.

For landlords and public housing authorities, federal law takes precedence over state law. So as long as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, there will continue to be a stark economic and racial divide between those who can use legal weed and those who are essentially still living under prohibition. After centuries of discriminatory housing and banking policies, the overwhelming majority of homeowners in the United States are white. And for everyone else, regardless of whether you live in a legal state, using cannabis can still ruin your life.

More than five million Americans receive housing assistance from the federal government. Over half of those people are not white. As the Department of Housing and Urban Development has affirmed multiple times in recent years, anyone who lives in public housing or receives Section 8 vouchers can legally be evicted or denied housing because of marijuana use or possession — even if the drug is legal in the rest of the state.

“I refuse to take opiates. Cannabis has worked so much better,” says Battle, who lives in federally subsidized housing.

“Regardless of the purpose for which legalized under state law, the use of marijuana in any form is illegal under the [Controlled Substances Act],” wrote then-HUD deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing programs Benjamin Metcalf in a 2014 memo. “Owners must establish policies which allow the termination of tenancy of any household with a member who is illegally using marijuana.”

So in places like Washington D.C., Denver and Los Angeles, where weed is supposedly legal for anyone over the age of 21, even a jar of THC-infused muscle salve is de facto not legal for quite a lot of folks, simply because they are old, disabled, low-income, or all three.

“Any indication someone is possessing or using marijuana can result in the person losing federal housing assistance,” says Jolene Forman, a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance. “And how that’s determined is held to a much lesser standard than you see in the criminal justice system. You don’t have the same due process protections, even though you’re losing your housing.”

If a repair person comes by to fix a leak or a stove, for example, and spots a marijuana-infused chocolate bar or a CBD tincture, that could lead to an eviction. This past January, a woman living in pot-friendly Humboldt County, California, was evicted from federally subsidized housing after a maintenance worker saw a cannabis edible in her apartment and reported her.

Making matters worse: about a quarter of the people receiving federal housing assistance are disabled, and about 35 percent are elderly. These are the exact populations that could benefit most from a drug that’s been found to be a much safer and less addictive alternative to opioids.

“We have seriously ill tenants having to choose between medicine and housing, which is not a fair position to put someone in,” Forman says.

For Sondra Battle, cannabis has been essential in helping to keep her fibromyalgia symptoms at bay.

“I landed here because I was ill and lost my home when I wasn’t able to work,” Battle says. “I refuse to take opiates. Cannabis has worked so much better. It helps me sleep, and there’s no hangover, no dragging and draining feeling like you get with these narcotics.”

If a repair person comes by to fix a leak or a stove, for example, and spots a marijuana-infused chocolate bar or a CBD tincture, that could lead to an eviction.

While local public housing authorities in legal states cannot formally allow cannabis, private landlords can use their discretion. Whether or not a renter can be evicted for cannabis use may be dependent on the terms of the lease. Some attorneys believe that the lease would need to specifically mention a ban on cannabis, while others say that pot is covered under any broader standard clause prohibiting “illegal activity.” Still, that means that anyone who doesn’t own their property in a legal state could legally be evicted for using or possessing cannabis at home.

To Read The Rest Of This Article By Amanda Chicago Lewis on Rolling Stone Magazine

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Published: August 21, 2018

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