Mainers who live in federally subsidized low-income housing and legally use marijuana to ease symptoms of chronic conditions may find themselves forced to choose between their shelter and their medicine, if a new Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) policy stays in place.
The state's medical marijuana program, which allows qualified caregivers to cultivate six plants per patient, has flourished over the last two years. The law contains an anti-discrimination clause barring landlords from basing tenancy decisions on medical marijuana status, unless that status could cause the landlord to lose federal funding. (Bans on tenant smoking, including in subsidized housing, are legal, because medical marijuana can be consumed in other ways.)
Citing the fear of losing federal funding, the 10-member MSHA board voted earlier this month "to not allow rental assistance to participants who use, possess, or cultivate medical marijuana in apartments where rent and utilities are federally subsidized under the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program, also known as Section 8," said a press release.
Federal law prohibits illegal controlled substances (like pot) in Section 8 housing; however, it is the official policy of the US government not to prosecute medical marijuana patients who are in compliance with state drug laws.
The MSHA board's discussion was spurred by landlord concerns as well as questions from a MaineHousing inspector who saw medical marijuana plants in a Section 8 unit, says Deborah Turcotte, the agency's public information officer.
Turcotte notes that individuals who are medical marijuana users and live in subsidized housing would still be permitted to use "at a dispensary or a loved one's house."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine disagrees with the MSHA decision, and is asking the agency to issue written guidelines for the lawful use of medical marijuana federal housing-subsidy recipients. The ACLU worries that affected tenants — who have been notified of the board's decision and given the opportunity to comply — may be forced into homelessness, due to a misinterpretation the law.
"While marijuana is illegal under federal law, the federal government has been clear that termination of housing benefits for existing HCV participants based on marijuana use is not required either by [federal department of Housing and Urban Development] regulations or existing MSHA policy," ALCU of Maine public policy counsel Alysia Melnick wrote in a statement she delivered to the board on Tuesday.
"This sort of decision forces patients who are using a substance legally . . . to either choose between losing their housing or go onto more serious drugs," she told the Phoenix, pointing out that "our state and our nation are facing a tremendous crisis in terms of prescription drug addiction."
Melnick believes the lingering stigma around medical marijuana use is contributing to the MSHA's decision.
"While I understand the commissioners' concerns, there is no evidence that allowing patients to access medical marijuana as directed by their physician has increased crime in any way or caused any public safety problems," said state representative Deborah Sanderson (R-Chelsea), who also spoke to the board on Tuesday. "In fact, if patients are forced to abandon a natural form of medicine to transition to narcotic pain relievers, they will just be contributing to the rising problem of addiction, crime and overdose caused by prescription opioids."
Neither Turcotte or Melnick were able to estimate how many medical marijuana patients could be affected. At the board meeting, which was not a public hearing, commissioners had the opportunity to reconsider their decision. Check thePhoenix.com/AboutTown for an update.