Longmont woman caught between two laws

Mother, son face eviction due to federal housing conflict with state medical marijuana program

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Photo by Elizabeth Miller
Ashley Weber

The last time Ashley Weber turned her head to look to the side, it was to watch the drunk driver who had just wrecked the truck she was a passenger in walk away from the car. He’d said he was going to take her on the ride of her life, and refused to hand over the keys to the car, let her out at her house or even buckle his seatbelt. She buckled it for him. But speeding down country roads near Wiggins ended in a rollover accident, and Weber says she knew, immediately, she had broken her neck. At 18 years old, Weber was already working full time in the emergency room at the hospital in Fort Morgan and studying to be a doctor, so she knew she shouldn’t be moved. She says she pleaded with the driver to just leave her where she was. Instead, she says, he picked her up like a sack of potatoes. And when she asked him to call 911, he refused, and called her parents instead. She spent six months in the hospital recovering from surgeries to stabilize her neck, where one vertebra had exploded, two had broken and one fractured. Weber, who grew up riding and roping horses and once won a saddle in a barrel racing competition, would have to shift from her active lifestyle to a bedridden one.

Over the past decade, she’s had to relearn how to do everything as a quadriplegic with limited mobility in her arms and almost no use of her hands. Her wrists move, but not her fingers. Just getting out of bed in the morning takes help, and she uses devices to sign, write and even paint.

“I try to do as much as I can,” Weber says. “As far as my limitations and everything, I feel it’s harder, it takes longer, but everything’s do-able.”

Slowly, she moved from assisted living facilities to a home next door to her parents and finally, two years ago, into a house she rents from her aunt and uncle. She says it’s nice to finally not live like a teenager.

She’s not just taking care of herself, now. She’s learned how to handle a pregnancy as a quadriplegic, and how to work around her wheelchair to be a single mother to her 3-year-old son, Collin.

“I always try to think ahead for future instances and for my son,” Weber says. She wanted kids eventually, she says, though Collin was a surprise. He’s a rambunctious kid, she says, but she doesn’t want to depend on a nanny or someone else to take care of him. He’s only 3, but she’s already saving the $93 in support for him that she receives each month so that when he turns 16, he can buy a car.

“I had $10,000 to use for a house that I knew I was going to stay in for a long time, and I saved that until I moved into this house, and it’s been 10 years this year, so I saved it year after year and was very careful about where I wanted to live and where I wanted to be,” she says. “I was planning on being here forever. I just started remodeling. I made the bathrooms where I could actually take a shower. … This was finally home and I made everything accessible.”

She put in hardwood floors, tile flooring and a roll-under sink in the bathroom, in addition to a roll-in shower.

But Weber, who usually plans everything so carefully, was rushing when she did the paperwork to renew her Section 8 housing voucher, paid for by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The voucher makes it possible for her to live on her own with Collin, in a way that the $761 in disability support alone she receives from Social Security could not. The Housing Choice Voucher Program, for families that make 50 percent below the area median income, asks families to pay 30 percent of their gross household income toward housing while the Housing and Urban Development voucher covers the rest.

The renewal form asked for her medical expenses, and she gave it to them, including the receipts she could find for medical marijuana after getting a medical marijuana certification eight months ago. She says it helps with her pain.

But one day before the 10-year anniversary of the car accident that left her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, she received a letter in the mail stating that the housing voucher was being terminated for her use of illegal drugs.

“I didn’t know it was wrong for me to turn in my medical [marijuana] expenses when they asked me to — because they tell you not to be fraudulent,” Weber says.

“We run a federally funded housing program that is paid for by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the federal regs have a very defined drug related criminal activity list that includes the marijuana issue,” says Michael Reis, executive director of the Longmont Housing Authority. “So our policy translates to denying assistance and terminating assistance for participants who commit drug-related criminal activity. That is where we are right now in our admin plan and the current direction from HUD. And I think as we go into the next year, we have to get some better direction from HUD on how we’re supposed to run this federal program in the state of Colorado.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, in response to medical marijuana laws passed in 15 states since 1996, did issue a memorandum in January 2011 saying that while it was still the federal policy not to permit the use of marijuana, medical or otherwise, whether local housing authorities decided to evict someone on the basis of marijuana use was at their discretion. Public housing authorities and owners of houses leased to housing voucher recipients, the memo says, “have the discretion to evict, or refrain from evicting, a current tenant who the PHA or owner determines is illegally using a controlled substance. … Thus, while PHAs and owners may elect to terminate occupancy based on illegal drug use, they are not required to evict current tenants for such use.”

“Marijuana is a controlled substance under the federal controlled substances act, and this is a federal program,” says Janice Rodriquez, division director for the Denver Office of Public Housing. Public housing authorities, like Longmont’s office, have to establish standards that allow them to terminate benefits to a household that demonstrates a pattern of illegal drug use that’s interfering with the health, safety or enjoyment of the property by other residents.

Ashley Weber and her son Collin in 2011 | Photo courtesy of Ashley Weber

“Our rules don’t require the housing authority to terminate assistance, but our rules do provide that the housing authority needs to have a policy that provides for what to do in those sorts of situations,” Rodriquez says. Unfortunately for people like Weber, the Longmont Housing Authority settled on a zero-tolerance policy.

“We adopted a more stringent policy than probably other housing authorities,” Reis says, while acknowledging that it is likely time for the administrative policy on medical marijuana to be revisited.

Medical marijuana was approved in Colorado in November 2000 and began operating in June 2001. As of September, Boulder County had some 9,344 patients using the drug.

Any changes to the administrative plan will be subject to hearings and review by the Longmont Housing Authority board, a process Reis estimates will take about 90 days to complete.

Meanwhile, Weber has been asked to follow the protocol of the current system — to request a hearing to review her case — and it’s been suggested that she request a hearing delay until June, well after the new administrative policy has been crafted.

Boulder County staff are also currently researching and planning how to handle these intersections of state-run programs and federal drug-use laws, and expect that process to be completed by April.

“In general, we do look to the federal guidelines because it’s a federal program, so all of our users sign a drug free lease addendum,” says Willa Williford, housing division director for Boulder County. That said, there hasn’t been a marijuana-related eviction in the past three years. Though medical marijuana helps with her pain, Weber says she is willing to give it up to avoid eviction.

“We’ve dealt with this sort of discrimination against medical marijuana patients for years,” says Brian Vicente, lawyer, executive director of Sensible Colorado and chair of the Denver Mayor’s Marijuana Policy Review Panel. “The important thing to know here is these local Section 8 offices have absolute discretion over whether they’re going to enforce that provision of the federal law or not. So it is totally within the control of that office over whether they’re going to boot someone out.”

Two constitutional amendments legalize marijuana, and now it’s up to the federal officials to be reasonable about enforcement, he says, and called Weber’s story “nothing short of tragic.”

At this point, Weber says she’s worried the hearing she has to file a request for by Dec. 19 won’t be delayed while those policies are revisited. The messages she’s heard from the Longmont Housing Authority have changed in the days she’s been on the phone with them, she says, and she’s concerned they might not let her delay the hearing date. Should she lose the voucher, according to the current policies from the Longmont Housing Authority, she’ll be ineligible for a housing voucher for at least three years.

If the timing for the hearing doesn’t work out in her favor and Weber loses her housing voucher, it wouldn’t be the first time she’s just barely missed receiving assistance because of a date, a dollar amount or bureaucratic oversight. The accident that left her a quadriplegic, in need of surgeries and a six-month hospital stay, occurred the month before her father’s new job added insurance benefits that would have covered her medical expenses. Had she worked and paid into Social Security for just a few months longer, she’d qualify for full disability payments. And if she made $.25 less from her Social Security Disability payments, she could draw Social Security Insurance as well.

Although the drunk driver spent three years in jail and Weber was promised restitution, she’s never seen a dime. She says the only time he apologized to her was when she appeared in court to testify at his parole hearing.

But Weber doesn’t seem to be letting any of it drag her down, and is keeping up on stem cell research that could one day help her. She even saved the umbilical cord blood when Collin was born.

Although she is looking to the future, she says she is beating herself up these days over how she dealt with her housing form.

Using medical marijuana edibles has let her reduce her daily dose of Oxycontin to handle the pain and spasms, while not leaving her feeling lethargic or mentally clouded, she says — which means she’s got more attention and energy for her son.

Having just enrolled Collin in preschool, she’s determined to learn how to drive so she can take him to school. She was also looking at taking some classes herself at Front Range Community College, starting a nonprofit for parents with disabilities and creating a book about parenting from a wheelchair. Those projects are on hold until she sorts out where she’ll be living this time next year.

“I was finally getting in a position in my life where I can move forward,” she says. “Every time I try to go forward with something, I’m set back in some way, and I just want to go.”

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