AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine State Housing Authority’s board on Tuesday unanimously agreed to a six-month moratorium on enforcing policy it approved last month that cuts off rental assistance to tenants found to be possessing or cultivating medical marijuana in their subsidized housing units.
Tuesday’s decision came after a state legislator and other advocates for medical marijuana users appealed to board members to respect Maine state law — which has allowed medical marijuana since 1999 — and not force medical marijuana users to choose between risking eviction or dropping their marijuana treatments in favor of potentially addictive pharmaceuticals.
The MaineHousing board last month approved the new policy banning medical marijuana from Section 8 apartments, citing concerns that the federal government could cut off housing assistance funds for Maine because of a conflict between state and federal laws.
As part of Tuesday’s decision, MaineHousing Executive Director John Gallagher and staff from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine will seek further clarification from the federal government on whether Maine’s public housing program is putting federal funds at risk by allowing medical marijuana.
While Maine law allows eligible patients and caregivers to grow and use marijuana for medical purposes, federal law considers marijuana — medical or not — an illegal substance. And in a federal court Tuesday, the federal government argued against reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous substance, claiming there’s a lack of scientific consensus on the drug’s medical benefits.
“It’s a federal problem. That is where the clarity problem is,” said MaineHousing board chairman Peter Anastos. “That is where we’re having an issue. The Obama administration is fighting this.”
But advocates for medical marijuana users pointed to federal Housing and Urban Development memos from 1999 and 2011 that grant public housing authorities flexibility in deciding whether to allow medical marijuana in the housing units they oversee.
The federal guidance makes it clear that the Maine State Housing Authority isn’t risking a loss of funds if it continues to allow medical marijuana, said Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Instead, she said, “if you go forward with this decision, you will be violating Maine’s statute.”
Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said the medical marijuana ban was discriminatory and constituted “a war upon the poor.”
“Any other person who’s a medical marijuana patient and not in need of Section 8 housing cannot by law be discriminated against and be denied housing because of their status” as a medical marijuana user, said Sanderson, who sponsored successful legislation last year that eliminated the requirement that medical marijuana users register as patients with the state.
The board’s unanimous vote Tuesday came after a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the benefits a number of patients have experienced from using medical marijuana instead of prescription pharmaceuticals and whether the housing authority risks greater legal trouble from allowing or banning medical marijuana in Section 8 housing.
“If he complies with your zero medical marijuana policy and is forced to use pharmaceuticals that have not worked well for him, does he join the ranks of opiate addicts in our state?” Sanderson said, referring to Don LaRouche, a medical marijuana patient who attended Tuesday’s meeting.
LaRouche grows marijuana in a public housing unit in Madison and uses it to reduce pain from Crohn’s disease, chronic back pain and muscle spasms. He was one of six tenants who received a notice from the Maine State Housing Authority earlier this month alerting him that he could be in violation of housing authority policies and that he had 30 days to comply. That notice is the first step toward ending a tenant’s rental assistance, which could then lead to eviction by the tenant’s landlord.
“You have instilled fear of homelessness upon people who are ill,” Sanderson said.
Board members ultimately decided to revisit the policy decision after they receive a clear legal opinion on whether they jeopardize federal funding by allowing medical marijuana in subsidized housing units.
MaineHousing board members originally passed the medical marijuana ban following a series of Section 8 housing inspections — related to alleged mismanagement of the program — that revealed a number of tenants who were growing and using marijuana in their housing units.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999. In 2009, voters approved an expansion of the law, allowing the state to set up a system of medical marijuana dispensaries. The state Department of Health and Human Services is now at work on rules that set restrictions for growing and securing medical marijuana plants.