'Divining a path' between needs of residents and federal rules
BRATTLEBORO -- The Brattleboro Housing Authority is trying to come up with a new medical marijuana policy that does not harsh anyone's mellow.
There are currently BHA residents who are enrolled in Vermont's Medical Marijuana Registry. Under Vermont law they can legally possess and imbibe marijuana to treat a medical condition. But all of the BHA public housing properties are owned by the federal government, which has made it very clear that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. So the BHA commissioners are working on a new policy that keeps their Big Boss happy, while respecting the medical needs of some of its renters and the fears and concerns of some of the other tenants.
"It's a problem. It's a very difficult road to find our way through," BHA Executive Director Chris Hart said at a recent meeting. "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."
At the April 21 meeting of the BHA, the housing authority commissioners discussed the policy.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent a letter to all of the housing authorities in the state saying that new admissions will be prohibited from entering into the federally subsidized housing program if they are using any controlled substance, including medical marijuana. In that same letter HUD stated that it will be up to the public housing authorities to establish their own occupancy standards for existing residents, and so the BHA commissioners are trying to come up with a standard policy.
At the April 21 meeting BHA Commissioner Tom Finnell said he thought it would be wrong for the housing authority to force a tenant out of an apartment, or to prevent him or her from using the 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 has become a little more cloudy after BHA recently voted to ban all smoking on housing authority properties. Smoking at the Samuel Elliot Apartments and at Hayes Court was banned starting May 1.
BHA Commissioner Christine Connelly said medical marijuana patients have a variety of delivery methods including eating it in food or using an oil and she said the housing authority should establish a rule. Connelly also said she wanted housing authority tenants to be able 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"
Hart said BHA staff members have been having problems with tenants who have been flaunting their newly acquired "green cards" and challenging the BHA staff.
"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."
In a follow-up interview to the April 21 meeting Hart said the staff and commissioners are going to take their time in coming up with a new policy.
"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."
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, is one of the state's leading proponents of the medical marijuana law, and she also works for BHA in between the legislative sessions when she is in Montpelier for most of the week.
White said lawmakers had no intention of directing public housing authorities, landlords, business owners, or anyone else, on how to interpret and live with the medical marijuana law. But at the same time, she said, the federal government is not making it any easier by establishing strict guidelines on tenant applicants, but a much 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."
HUD has plenty of policies on what tenants can and can not do if they want to live in public housing, so White said it is within their purview to make a statement on medical marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law. So it will be up to groups like BHA to figure out how they want to live within the federal law while respecting the rights and medical needs of its tenants.
"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."
And ACLU of Vermont Executive Director Allen Gilbert said the housing authority's predicament is shared by other organizations that have to figure out the shifting state laws that move from outlawing marijuana to 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. Everyone acknowledges that there are federal laws, but even they are saying they won't prosecute small amounts," said Gilbert. "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."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.
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