In Vermont, tenants using medical marijuana clash with federal housing rules


BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- The housing authority in this southeastern Vermont town is trying to rectify a state law that lets tenants use medical marijuana, but in a federally owned facility that deems it illegal.

Residents of Brattleboro Housing Authority enrolled in Vermont’s Medical Marijuana Registry can legally possess and imbibe marijuana, but the federal government has made it clear that marijuana is illegal under federal law.

"It’s a problem. It’s a very difficult road to find our way through," said Chris Hart, the housing authority’s executive director. "We are trying to find out what makes sense and what people need. It’s really going to be a difficult policy no matter which way we go."

Housing authority commissioners now find themselves at the crux of striking a balance between state and federal laws that clash. They’re attempting to craft a policy that keeps the federal government happy, while respecting the medical needs of some of its renters and the fears and concerns of other tenants.

"We have federal guidelines that say, ‘Here is the law,’ and the housing authority has to divine a path between that and the state law," Hart said. "It is a very difficult position for the housing authority. I don’t think there is any black-and-white here. We’re going to have to figure it out."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has notified all Vermont housing authorities that new tenants using any controlled substance, including marijuana, will be prohibited from the federally subsidized housing program.

HUD says it’s up to housing authorities to establish their own occupancy standards for existing tenants.

Brattleboro Housing Authority Commissioner Tom Finnell says it would be wrong to force tenants out for medical marijuana use or prevent them from using medicinal marijuana.

"As far as new applicants go, it seems our hands are tied, but we can allow tenants to use it if they are registered users," said Finnell. "I feel like there is a benefit for some people with ailments for using medical marijuana and we should allow it."

The issue became cloudier after the housing authority enacted a May 1 ban on cigarette smoking at its Samuel Elliot and Hayes Court apartment complexes.

Commissioner Christine Connelly said medical marijuana patients consume it in a variety of ways, such as in food or in oils, and not just by smoking. Connelly said housing authority tenants should be allowed to use medical marijuana.

"I feel like for people who have finally gotten some relief, who may have been suffering for years, it would be wrong to take that away from them," Connelly said. "I would have a big problem with that. We should be able to figure this out."

Some tenants have been flaunting their newly acquired medical marijuana cards and challenging housing authority staff, according to Hart.

"Some people got their card, and went overboard, and that’s not OK," Hart said. "People think they can smoke pot anywhere they want and that’s just not true. This is a federally owned property and we are talking about a federally banned substance. People need to take it down a notch. If you just use it as medicine it will be OK. We just want people to be cool about it."

State Sen. Jeanette White, one of Vermont’s leading proponents of the medical marijuana law, said lawmakers do not intent to direct public housing authorities, landlords, business owners or others on how to interpret and live with the medical marijuana law. At the same time, White said, the federal government is not making it easier by establishing strict guidelines on tenant applicants, but having a softer policy on tenants who are already living in public housing.

"HUD is very clear that in their eyes marijuana is an illegal substance, but they say housing authorities can establish their own policies," said White. "They’ve been schizophrenic on it. They’ve kind of shrugged it off. They don’t want to deal with it."

Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert said the housing authority’s predicament is shared by other organizations that must navigate state laws that shift from outlawing marijuana to allowing medicinal use to decriminalization and legalization.

It is even more challenging, Gilbert said, when the federal government is looking over the housing authority’s shoulders and holding its purse strings.

"We are in this strange transition period between total prohibition on the federal level and some acceptance of use on the state level," said Gilbert. "Everyone acknowledges that there are federal laws, but even they are saying they won’t prosecute small amounts. It is a vexing problem for people who are struggling through the ambiguity. Unfortunately, it is left to people like the housing authority to sort through this mess."

"Housing authorities are trying to figure out the best way to approach this," said White. "If it were not illegal, federally, then the housing authority could make a decision based on what was best for them and their tenants. But since the feds say it is illegal and the state says it won’t prosecute people who use it, it’s hard to make a decision."


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