October 15, 2012

Maine State Housing Authority to revisit medical marijuana decision

Housing group voted to disallow pot use in property it is subsidizing

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Don LaRouche believes he has a right to continue growing and smoking marijuana in the trailer he rents in Madison with the assistance of a Section 8 voucher.

click image to enlarge

Don LaRouche inside the "budding room" where medical marijuana is grown at his home in Madison on Monday. LaRouche is one of six public housing tenants who Maine State Housing Authority contacted this month to stay they have to stop growing/using medical marijuana in their homes or will lose housing assistance.

He hopes to convince one more MaineHousing commissioner of that today.

The board of commissioners voted 4-3 last month not to allow the use, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana in apartments subsidized through its Section 8 program. It agreed, however, to hear additional comments at its meeting this morning.

At the beginning of October, Maine State Housing Authority notified six tenants, including LaRouche, that they would have to comply the agency's new policy within a month or lose their vouchers.

It was something that LaRouche had heard before.

LaRouche, who uses the drug to treat muscle spasms and symptoms of glaucoma and Crohn's disease, received a letter last summer telling him to lose the marijuana or he'd lose his housing assistance.

The drug makes him more comfortable. "I don't sit there and twitch, and I don't feel like my eyes are popping out of my head," he said.

LaRouche, who has been growing the drug for five years, tends to his plants daily and smokes marijuana throughout the day. On disability, he can't afford the dispensary prices and he can't afford to pay for an apartment without assistance.

"I just don't know what to do. For the people to say I can't have something that helps me, who are them people?" he said.

He used to live in an apartment in Madison, where he also got rental assistance, but growing pot was never a problem, he said. Then he moved early last spring into a rented trailer.

"All of a sudden, I can't do it no more," said LaRouche.

Late last spring, an inspector reported to the Maine State Housing Authority that a subsidized unit had two rooms full of marijuana plants, said the agency's spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte.

Turcotte couldn't say whether that was LaRouche's trailer.

That was when the MaineHousing board began to talk about its policy on medical marijuana. Before then, it was considered on a case-by-case basis, Turcotte said.

Around the same time, state Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, who had sponsored a bill signed last year to loosen the medical marijuana law, got wind of LaRouche's situation.

She met with MaineHousing officials asking to give him more time before evicting him. The agency ended up rescinding its demands on LaRouche altogether.

Sanderson will join LaRouche and Alysia Melnick, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, at the MaineHousing commissioner's meeting at 9 a.m. today.

They hope the board will reconsider its decision. If not, Melnick said, the ACLU of Maine would consider its legal options.

"This is, as far as I'm concerned, a law against poor people," Sanderson said.

Although all public housing authorities are required to deny applicants who use medical marijuana, those agencies in the 17 states where medical marijuana is legal are allowed to come up with their own policies regarding people who are already in public housing and use medical marijuana, according to a memorandum issued last year by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development.

"Unfortunately, HUD's been a tad wishy-washy on the subject," said Susan Eldridge, interim executive director of Westbrook Housing. "It makes it hard for us."

Both Westbrook Housing and the Portland Housing Authority, which can come up with their own policies, don't permit marijuana in their rental units.

Both Eldridge and Mark Adelson, executive director of Portland Housing Authority, cited the conflict between law of the state and that of the federal government, which doesn't recognize medical marijuana as a legal drug and which funds their programs.

Westbrook Housing plans to further discuss its policy on medical marijuana at a meeting this month.

Turcotte said the decision of the MaineHousing board was also based on the fact that marijuana is illegal under federal law. She said the board was also concerned that allowing medical marijuana in its apartments would burden MaineHousing staff, which is not qualified to determine whether it's being grown or used legally.

In the past six months, she said, the agency has become aware of six tenants who were growing medical marijuana in subsidized housing and will be required to remove it to keep their vouchers.

Neither Turcotte nor Melnick knew how many Maine medical marijuana users are in the Section 8 program.

They also did not know about the policies of public housing authorities in any of other states where medical marijuana is legal.

Rhonda Siciliano, the public affairs officer for HUD in New England, said that may be because Maine's public housing situation is unlike most other states, where all assistance is administered by local housing authorities, which can set their own policies.

Leslie Bridgers -- 791-6364

lbridgers@pressherald.com

 

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