October 17, 2012

Maine State Housing Authority commissioners lift pot ban for 6 months

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Tenants in subsidized housing can continue to use or grow medical marijuana in their homes for another six months, the Maine State Housing Authority's commissioners decided Tuesday.

The commissioners unanimously voted to put a 180-day moratorium on a policy it enacted last month banning the use, possession and cultivation of medical marijuana in housing subsidized through its Section 8 program.

Despite having decided the issue, which the board had been discussing since June, it allowed additional comments about the policy at its meeting Tuesday.

State Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea; Alysia Melnick, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and three caregivers, who are licensed to grow medical marijuana for patients, addressed the board, said Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine State Housing Authority.

She said the board enacted a moratorium in order to work with Sanderson and the ACLU of Maine to get more clarity from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about its position on medical marijuana users in federally subsidized housing.

While HUD has said applicants for public housing cannot use medical marijuana, which is illegal under federal law, the federal agency has left local housing authorities to decide what to do about medical marijuana users who already get public assistance in the 17 states where the drug is legal.

"I think the federal government doesn't want to be the one to kick people out of these housing units either, so they leave it up to us," said Donald Capoldo, a commissioner from Bath who made the motion to enact a moratorium.

"If you're going to push that decision to us, then I will side with what our state says," he said.

Melnick said she believes that HUD has been clear about what local housing authorities can do, but, she said, some commissioners wanted more assurance that allowing medical marijuana use in subsidized housing wasn't a violation of federal policy.

Turcotte said MaineHousing wants a document from the federal government that says it can have a blanket policy on medical marijuana that applies to all current Section 8 voucher recipients and makes clear that the agency doesn't have to treat tenants on a case-by-case basis, which is how it has interpreted the federal policy.

Without that, she said, "it puts funding at risk."

Sanderson commended the board for listening closely to testimony Tuesday and taking it into consideration.

"They want to do the right thing, and they want to make sure, in doing the right thing, they're not jeopardizing the whole program," she said.

After the commissioners' vote in September, MaineHousing notified six tenants, whom they knew were growing medical marijuana, that they had to comply with the new policy within 30 days. If they didn't, the process to terminate their assistance would have begun on Nov. 1. Now, that's the date the moratorium takes effect.

Turcotte said, when deciding to enact the moratorium, the board took into consideration that the policy could have caused people to lose their housing during the winter.

That's one way the board's decision Tuesday will have a positive effect on Don LaRouche, a Madison man who was told he'd lose his housing assistance if he didn't stop growing marijuana, which he smokes to alleviate muscle spasms and symptoms of glaucoma and Crohn's disease.

"If they boot me out, at least it's summertime," he said.

LaRouche, who attended the meeting Tuesday, said "six months is better than nothing," but he's still worried that, in the end, he might be faced with the same situation where he's choosing between his medicine and his housing.

Melnick said she's determined to make sure that doesn't happen.

"This threat of eviction is still looming over the heads of sick and disabled Mainers," she said. "We plan to continue to fight until they can sleep soundly at night."

 

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