Maine medical marijuana users fear loss of subsidized housing

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Marijuana plants flourish under the lights at a grow house. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

PORTLAND — Some medical marijuana patients may have to choose between their cannabis and their federally subsidized housing if a state moratorium is not renewed before its Oct. 1 deadline.

While state housing officials say it’s unlikely the deadline will pass without action, the prospect is still unnerving to those who may be affected.

“I’ll have to go back on my pain medications and anti-depressants. I’m in no position to move again. I’m 61 years old,” said Brooks resident and medical marijuana patient Joan, who asked that her last name not be used. “My life had no quality [before I started using cannabis]. I was in a daze with all the pain medications and antidepressants.”

The moratorium allows grandfathered medical marijuana patients to use, possess and grow cannabis while in federally subsidized housing properties. If it is not extended before it sunsets next Tuesday, those patients will have to stop taking the drug in Section 8 housing or have their federal rent subsidies cut off.

The Maine State Housing Authority board of commissioners is scheduled to consider another yearlong extension at its meeting Tuesday morning in Augusta, authority spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said Monday.

Turcotte said only 12 of the approximately 3,850 state Section 8 housing voucher receivers in Maine would be affected by a moratorium lapse if it happens.

The board initially approved a policy disallowing all medical marijuana use, possession or cultivation at properties that are part of MaineHousing’s Housing Choice Voucher Program in September 2012. But a month after approving the measure, the board doubled back and approved a six-month moratorium on implementing it with hopes of hearing back from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on whether allowing use of the drug would jeopardize the state’s qualification for federal aid.

The moratorium was extended for another six months while state housing authority officials continued waiting for guidance from HUD, and Turcotte said the board still has yet to hear back from the federal agency.

Use of medical marijuana was legalized in Maine in 1999 and larger-scale dispensaries were legalized in 2009, but the drug has yet to be legalized at a federal level, putting programs and agencies that straddle the two jurisdictions in awkward positions in terms of compliance.

That was the spot MaineHousing found itself in during the fall of 2012, when it initially decided to err on the side of caution by prohibiting the marijuana in units funded by the federal Section 8 program.

The new policy affected grandfathered cannabis patients, who were already in federally subsidized housing when they were granted licenses for medical marijuana. New applicants for Section 8 housing at the state level have not been allowed to possess the drug.

“Our board decided that persons with prescriptions could not use, possess or cultivate marijuana in our buildings, because it’s still illegal at the federal level and we did not want to jeopardize our status within those federal programs,” Turcotte told the Bangor Daily News Monday.

Turcotte said HUD officials have stated that state agencies like MaineHousing can adopt their own guidelines, but she said the state board wants clearer standards from the federal agency on how much flexibility Maine officials will have in setting those guidelines as they pertain to marijuana.

The U.S. Department of Justice informed state attorneys general last month that it would not intrude upon states where medical or recreational use of marijuana has been legalized locally as long as the industries are regulated. While it’s a different department of the federal government, MaineHousing officials are looking at that communication as their only available guidance from Washington, D.C., thus far.

When asked about whether MaineHousing board members are considering letting the moratorium expire, Peter Anastos, chairman of the board, told the BDN on Monday “we’re not leaning that way,” citing the Justice Department decision to “lay off states” where marijuana has been legalized.

That will likely come as good news to Joan, who has fibromyalgia and chronic depression, and said marijuana replaced between eight and 10 prescription drugs — including Valium and oxycodone — in her treatment.

If the moratorium lapses, previously grandfathered medical marijuana patients will be faced with the same predicament as John Candelmo, a Section 8 housing resident in Westbrook who cannot use or possess his medical cannabis at his subsidized apartment.

Candelmo, who receives disability payments for a broken back and multiple sclerosis, said he has to travel off-site to use his licensed medical cannabis, visiting friends or relatives where he can legally use the drug sometimes as early as 2 a.m. when he struggles to sleep because of the pain. Candelmo is among those pushing for clear federal acceptance of the state laws, so he might be able to use marijuana in the subsidized housing.

“To risk being homeless, it’s very nerve-wracking,” he said. “It’s tough to swallow. I’ve had to work things out with friends or relatives to leave my medicine at their house and visit them when I need to take it. My medication is important to me, but it’s also important to me that I have a place to live. I don’t ever want to go back to taking all the pills they were prescribing to me.”

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