As lunchtime approaches, Collin, age 4, removes his mom’s plate from the microwave to set aside until she’s ready for it, pulls himself up on the counter by the sink to turn on the faucet, wets a paper towel and wraps a burrito in it. His mother, Ashley Weber, coaches him through punching the numbers three and zero on the microwave.
He flips the burrito over unprompted, enters another round of numbers, gets his own plate and carries lunch to the living room. He’s just a little more self-sufficient than your average pre-K kid.
“He’ll figure out a way, no matter what,” Weber says.
He’s got that in common with his mom.
After more than a year waiting for a hearing that never happened with the Longmont Housing Authority, Weber has finally learned that her use of medical marijuana to manage the residual pain of having become a quadriplegic in a car accident 11 years ago is not going to lead to the loss of the housing voucher that keeps her and Collin in a house together. Weber’s lawyer, Jeff Gard, spent the year meeting with legal staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and legislators working to craft laws to bring some clarity to the ongoing friction between federal policies on marijuana and states where the controlled substance has been legalized or permitted for medicinal use.
In January, Longmont Housing Authority adopted a revision to its administrative policy that allows more tolerance for medical marijuana patients — meaning Weber’s eviction notice was withdrawn.
Her first response to the news, Weber says, was a sigh of relief.
“If I didn’t have the access that I have in this home, I don’t think I could give [Collin] the proper care,” she says. “The accessibility here gives me the time to be with him, to raise him … and do what I need to do with my care.”
Her house has been remodeled so she can get into Collin’s bedroom, into the bathroom and even into the shower — time- and energy-saving changes from her last house. As it is, she’s still up at 5:45 a.m. to start her routine so she’s ready by the time Collin wakes up at 7 a.m. Keeping her home, in many ways, means keeping her son, too.
Weber was notified in December 2012 that, after completing her annual paperwork for her Section 8 housing voucher and including cannabis among her medical expenses, her housing assistance would be terminated for use of a controlled substance. Weber requested a hearing to appeal the decision, and that hearing was put off for more than a year while the Longmont Housing Board reexamined its policies.
“We had instituted a zero tolerance policy in our admin plan back in 2003 to address some budget cuts the housing choice voucher was wrestling with, so the zero tolerance policy allowed us to quickly terminate benefits for anyone in the housing choice voucher program that was not performing their obligations,” says Michael Reis, executive director of the Longmont Housing Authority, which connects 500 voucher recipients with federal funding that then goes to private landlords as rent.
Over the last half of 2013, the entire administrative plan was reviewed for its zero tolerance policies, which applied not only to controlled substances but to other mechanics within the housing program.
“Our policy went from a must deny participation in the program to a may deny participation in the program,” Reis says. “Where it applies to controlled substance, we may deny participation or terminate assistance to participants where we determine there’s a reasonable cause that there’s abuse.”
That “reasonable cause” hinges largely on input from third parties — landlords reporting lease violations, inspectors reporting health or safety issues and law enforcement agents reporting criminal activity — and would trigger a conversation, not an automatic termination.
A 2011 memo from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave local housing authorities the discretion to adjust their policies on controlled substance use in states where medical marijuana was legalized to accommodate those patients.
“A zero tolerance policy leaves very little programmatic wiggle room,” Reis says. “It’s very clear, but it leaves collateral damage that is really not in the best interest of the community in most instances. … Some of the things that we were doing were terminating folks for violations that could be worked out between the landlord and the tenant.”
Weber’s case was picked up, pro bono, by Gard, of Gard & Bond Law Firm in Boulder, who had a history with fair housing disability cases, after reading a Boulder Weekly story on Weber’s pending eviction. No one else would take the case, he says — there was no law that would support her case, so new law would have to be made. He worked backward from that premise, making multiple trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators and Housing and Urban Development’s top legal counsel.
He looked to other local housing authorities that overlap with legalized medical marijuana, and couldn’t find any written policies on handling these cases. The Longmont Housing Authority’s policy, which he calls “extremely reasonable,” may be one of the first in the country that puts in writing how they’ll handle medical marijuana in the face of a shifting legal landscape.
“You know, I don’t know what the rest of the country is doing, it’s kind of a rapidly moving and changing policy environment,” Reis says. “We tried to come up with something that would work for our program and our community that would be fair and reasonable so we can manage forward in this changing environment.”
The hope, Gard says, is that other people in Weber’s situation will be able to look to Longmont’s policy not as a legally binding precedent, but at least as an example that a local housing authority can approve this policy without incurring wrath from Housing and Urban Development.
But, Gard cautions, “people in Ashley’s situation, just like Ashley, are going to have to make their own luck. … With the federal Controlled Substances Act still making marijuana use illegal, the housing authority wouldn’t be outside of its boundaries to say, ‘We’re not going to put up with that.’ On the other hand, if that’s not how they want to treat their residents and not how they want to address that issue, they certainly have precedent that we have changed the mind of one housing authority in one case. From one little pebble many ripples are formed, and that’s exactly what probably will happen with Ashley.”
“I felt rewarded to kind of be the voice for all of the other people out there on housing facing this issue,” says Weber, who has plans to continue education and advocacy efforts on the medicinal, health and industrial benefits of marijuana and hemp. “I hope that I change people’s minds. It doesn’t make you lazy, because if anything else, I felt lazier, I felt more out of it, more foggy-headed, or I didn’t want to deal with things, I wanted to shut the door and stay cooped up in my little house and not do anything when I was on stronger medications. Cannabis just lets me kind of be free, and I feel like I want to get out there, I want to be a chatterbox. I want to talk it up and tell people, it’s a good thing.”
While the new policy is great news, she says, and she’s glad to feel secure in her own home, she still worries that the case-by-case strategy for the new policy could leave someone else fighting the same fight she’s just finished.
“If discretion is used or used properly, it should work fine,” Gard says. “And if it’s abused, it won’t work at all.”
It was, however, the only approach the housing authority could take, given the current legal climate.
“It’s a Band-Aid in lieu of legislation,” Gard says. “It’s one that I think allows for compassion and allows for understanding and allows for dialogue between the housing authority and the residents, and I think that’s appropriate. Although I think and I continue to believe that what’s really required here is a true legislative fix.”
Gard has plans to continue to work with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and with legislative working groups to ease the friction between federal policies on medical marijuana and local governments charged with administering federal programs, including housing vouchers,
Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, food stamps, school lunch programs — from taxes to banking and everywhere in between.
“Ashley’s case provides a great and very sympathetic reason to make some of these changes, but the impact of this friction between federal and state law is going to continue to rear its head in so many different areas,” Gard says, citing cases of veterans, or Medicare or Medicaid users, losing benefits, disability or Social Security.
“The advice that I continue to give people is, don’t do something that jeopardizes something you can’t live without.
Don’t risk it. In Ashley’s case, she didn’t know she was. She was inadvertently kind of caught up in what she thought was the right thing in her state.”
Collin’s big news at this point isn’t about the house — his mother has kept him mostly sheltered from that worry. It’s about the shots he had to get to make sure he’s ready for kindergarten, which he’ll start in the fall.
When the time comes, Weber will go with him to the bus stop, just half a block down the street from their home, to see him off.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she prompts him. To which he replies, “Happy.”
“I guess if he’s happy,” Weber says, “I’m happy.”