Sondra Battle was fed up. Every time something needed to be repaired in the Washington D.C. grandmother’s federally-subsidized apartment, it seemed to take an ungodly number of phone calls to make it happen. The mold was the last straw. Last spring, after she says her resident manager refused to send anyone to remove the black mold covering the wall behind her kitchen cabinets, Battle began tweeting and issuing formal complaints to anyone that would listen: local activists, public agencies, the mayor’s office.
Within days, a manager took action, only not the kind she was expecting: suddenly, there was a notice put up in the building announcing that any resident found to be using marijuana, whether medical or otherwise, could be evicted with no chance for appeal.
Battle was shocked. Everyone in the building knew that she used cannabis instead of opioids to treat the chronic pain associated with her fibromyalgia.
“It felt directed toward me,” she says. Still, she had a doctor’s recommendation, and Washington D.C. had legalized the recreational use of marijuana back in 2014. Could she really still be evicted on the pretext of a little pot?
As it turns out, she could.
For landlords and public housing authorities, federal law takes precedence over state law. So as long as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, there will continue to be a stark economic and racial divide between those who can use legal weed and those who are essentially still living under prohibition. After centuries of discriminatory housing and banking policies, the overwhelming majority of homeowners in the United States are white. And for everyone else, regardless of whether you live in a legal state, using cannabis can still ruin your life.
More than five million Americans receive housing assistance from the federal government. Over half of those people are not white. As the Department of Housing and Urban Development has affirmed multiple times in recent years, anyone who lives in public housing or receives Section 8 vouchers can legally be evicted or denied housing because of marijuana use or possession — even if the drug is legal in the rest of the state.
“I refuse to take opiates. Cannabis has worked so much better,” says Battle, who lives in federally subsidized housing.
“Regardless of the purpose for which legalized under state law, the use of marijuana in any form is illegal under the [Controlled Substances Act],” wrote then-HUD deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing programs Benjamin Metcalf in a 2014 memo. “Owners must establish policies which allow the termination of tenancy of any household with a member who is illegally using marijuana.”
So in places like Washington D.C., Denver and Los Angeles, where weed is supposedly legal for anyone over the age of 21, even a jar of THC-infused muscle salve is de facto not legal for quite a lot of folks, simply because they are old, disabled, low-income, or all three.
“Any indication someone is possessing or using marijuana can result in the person losing federal housing assistance,” says Jolene Forman, a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance. “And how that’s determined is held to a much lesser standard than you see in the criminal justice system. You don’t have the same due process protections, even though you’re losing your housing.”
If a repair person comes by to fix a leak or a stove, for example, and spots a marijuana-infused chocolate bar or a CBD tincture, that could lead to an eviction. This past January, a woman living in pot-friendly Humboldt County, California, was evicted from federally subsidized housing after a maintenance worker saw a cannabis edible in her apartment and reported her.
Making matters worse: about a quarter of the people receiving federal housing assistance are disabled, and about 35 percent are elderly. These are the exact populations that could benefit most from a drug that’s been found to be a much safer and less addictive alternative to opioids.
“We have seriously ill tenants having to choose between medicine and housing, which is not a fair position to put someone in,” Forman says.
For Sondra Battle, cannabis has been essential in helping to keep her fibromyalgia symptoms at bay.
“I landed here because I was ill and lost my home when I wasn’t able to work,” Battle says. “I refuse to take opiates. Cannabis has worked so much better. It helps me sleep, and there’s no hangover, no dragging and draining feeling like you get with these narcotics.”
If a repair person comes by to fix a leak or a stove, for example, and spots a marijuana-infused chocolate bar or a CBD tincture, that could lead to an eviction.
While local public housing authorities in legal states cannot formally allow cannabis, private landlords can use their discretion. Whether or not a renter can be evicted for cannabis use may be dependent on the terms of the lease. Some attorneys believe that the lease would need to specifically mention a ban on cannabis, while others say that pot is covered under any broader standard clause prohibiting “illegal activity.” Still, that means that anyone who doesn’t own their property in a legal state could legally be evicted for using or possessing cannabis at home.
Furthermore, most states have been reluctant to allow cannabis lounges or other public places where people can consume marijuana. So in order to truly enjoy the benefits of legalization, you need to own your own property.
Of course, property owners have long felt safe using illicit drugs in the privacy of their own home, and have always been a protected class in the United States. But who gets to be a part of that protected class remains largely dependent on the color of your skin.
Half a century after the Fair Housing Act attempted to rectify the legal forms of discrimination that kept the country segregated and prevented people of color from accumulating wealth, black homeownership rates are hardly higher than they were in 1970. Black and Latino families were targeted with subprime loans, and disproportionately lost their savings and homes when the market crashed a decade ago. Today, over 70 percent of white people in America own their own homes, compared to about 47 percent of non-white people. And so the population of people who can truly enjoy the benefits of legal marijuana remains exactly the same as the population of people that rarely faced consequences for enjoying illegal marijuana.
Until the federal government reclassifies cannabis and rectifies the inconsistencies between state and federal law, marijuana will not truly be legal for many of the folks living in states that have legalized. At the moment, there are several bills in Congress that could ameliorate the situation — including one introduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) that would explicitly allow the use of cannabis in public housing in states where it is already legal.
Norton’s bill was inspired by Battle, who attended a signing ceremony at the Congresswoman’s office back in June. However, that bill is rather unlikely to pass. One marijuana bill with a better chance at passing this year is the STATES Act, which focuses on solving the banking and tax problems of business owners. According to Forman, the staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, the STATES Act will not grant full protections from being evicted or fired for cannabis use for people living in legal states.
Until the day federal law changes, Battle hopes that her taking the risk to speak out will help make a difference. Because if you cannot legally unwind with a vape pen at home on a Friday night, it’s something of a stretch to say that cannabis is really legal for you.
“There’s so much unfairness around,” Battle says. “Because we’re low-income and subsidized, nobody gives a damn.”