Tenants in subsidized housing can continue to use or grow medical marijuana in their homes for another six months, the Maine State Housing Authority’s commissioners decided Tuesday.

The board voted unanimously to place a 180-day moratorium on a policy it enacted last month banning the use, possession and cultivation of medical marijuana in housing subsidized through its Section 8 program.

Despite its decision last month, the board allowed additional comments on the policy at its meeting Tuesday.

State Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea; Alysia Melnick, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine; and three caregivers who are licensed to grow medical marijuana for patients addressed the board, said Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the housing authority.

She said the board approved a moratorium so it could work with Sanderson and the ACLU of Maine to get more clarity from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about its position on medical marijuana users in federally subsidized housing.

While HUD has said applicants for public housing cannot use medical marijuana, which is illegal under federal law, the federal agency has left local housing authorities to decide what to do about users who already get public assistance in the 17 states where medical marijuana is legal.

“I think the federal government doesn’t want to be the one to kick people out of these housing units either, so they leave it up to us,” said Donald Capoldo, a commissioner from Bath who made the motion for a moratorium.

“If you’re going to push that decision to us, then I will side with what our state says,” Capoldo said.

Melnick said she believes that HUD has been clear about what local housing authorities can do, but some commissioners wanted more assurance that allowing medical marijuana use in subsidized housing wasn’t a violation of federal policy.

Turcotte said MaineHousing wants a document from the federal government that says it can have a policy for medical marijuana that applies to all current Section 8 voucher recipients and makes clear that the agency doesn’t have to treat tenants on a case-by-case basis.

Without that, she said, “it puts funding at risk.”

Sanderson commended the board, saying the commissioners “want to do the right thing, and they want to make sure, in doing the right thing, they’re not jeopardizing the whole program.”

After the commissioners’ vote in September, MaineHousing notified six tenants who were known to be growing medical marijuana that they had to comply with the new policy within 30 days.

If they didn’t, the process to terminate their assistance would have begun Nov. 1. Now, that’s the date the moratorium will take effect.

In deciding to approve the moratorium, Turcotte said, the board considered the fact that the policy could cause people to lose their housing during the winter.

That’s one way Tuesday’s decision will have a positive effect on Don LaRouche of Madison, who was told he would lose his housing assistance if he didn’t stop growing marijuana, which he smokes to alleviate muscle spasms and symptoms of glaucoma and Crohn’s disease.

“If they boot me out, at least it’s summertime,” he said.

LaRouche, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said “six months is better than nothing,” but he’s still worried that, in the end, he might face the same choice between his medicine and his housing.

Melnick said she’s determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“This threat of eviction is still looming over the heads of sick and disabled Mainers,” she said. “We plan to continue to fight until they can sleep soundly at night.”

 

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com