Many Arkansas housing authority officials hadn't developed policies on what to do about medical marijuana when the first ounces were sold earlier this month.
Although medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, including Arkansas, it's still a Schedule 1 drug under federal law. The collision of state and federal law means local housing officials must decide whether to evict residents who use cannabis, even if the residents have state-issued medical marijuana cards.
The issue has been debated nationwide for years as various states have legalized medical marijuana. Conflicting policy has resulted in evictions of some and denial of rental assistance for others.
The Hot Springs Housing Authority has banned use of the drug.
"Until we hear something from HUD, it's still illegal," said Richard Herrington, the agency's executive director, referring to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Both of the state's currently operating medical cannabis dispensaries are in Hot Springs. There are 30 more dispensaries across the state yet to open.
Other housing authority officials plan to consider each request for use on a case-by-case basis, and some haven't developed any policies on the matter.
At the Texarkana Housing Authority, executive director Dub Wingfield says his agency will likely take an approach to medical marijuana different from the Hot Springs agency, although the board hasn't addressed the subject yet. He said two authority members have been unavailable because of work responsibilities and illness for the past two months, but he's hopeful the authority will address a medical marijuana policy at its next meeting.
"We don't have anything in place at this time for medical marijuana," Wingfield said. "Government regulation says that any narcotics are not allowed on public housing, so it is a question. But if you have a medical need for it, I would think that we would probably be compliant with that issue."
HUD's official stance is that residents of public housing, about 20 percent of whom are disabled, aren't allowed to use cannabis, even for medicinal purposes.
"From the federal point of view, marijuana remains a controlled substance and is illegal," said Patricia Campbell, a HUD regional public affairs officer.
HUD put out a memo in 2014 and two in 2011 on the topic but hasn't issued any guidance to local-level authorities since. HUD officials in Washington, D.C., sent the 2014 memo to directors of multifamily housing programs.
Its directives make it clear that public housing agencies can't accept new applicants who are taking medical marijuana, said David Gates, Arkansas' chapter president for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. The group advocates for "adequate and affordable housing and strong, viable communities," according to its website.
Gates, who is also the executive director at the Lonoke County Housing Authority, said that when voters passed the state's medical marijuana constitutional amendment in 2016, association members began talking about what to do.
The association hasn't taken a stance on medical marijuana, he said.
Gates added that while he sees a potential for conflict with residents who have medical marijuana cards, that problem hasn't arisen in the weeks since the two Hot Springs dispensaries opened.
One 52-year-old woman in Northwest Arkansas, who has a Section 8 voucher for her housing, said she has a medical marijuana card, but because she lives in government-assisted housing, there isn't a way for her to use the drug. It's the only thing that keeps the pain from injuries related to past abuse as well as scoliosis and fibromyalgia, among other ailments, at bay, she said.
Her income comes from Social Security because she is disabled, she said.
The woman, who spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity because she fears eviction, said the ban on marijuana was included in a ban on smoking at HUD properties in a document sent to residents earlier this year. She refused to sign the document, which requires tenants to smoke tobacco or any other product at least 25 feet away from their homes.
For her, that means either smoking the medical marijuana in public, which isn't allowed under state regulations, or on someone else's property.
"Their rules require us to BREAK the rules we agreed to as patients," she said via text message. "I can literally lose ALL federal assistance ... I'm unable to work ... so that leaves a lot of us homeless and destitute."
Herrington said that while no medical marijuana will be allowed for Hot Springs tenants, no matter what program they are in, officials don't drug-test residents and won't "go in their units and go through their personal things."
The Hot Springs Housing Authority provides rental assistance to just over 1,000 low-income people.
"It's still an eviction issue," he said "It's a termination issue from the program, so HUD's going to have to make a decision on what they want, but right now we tell people if you take it ... we don't do drug tests on residents."
The drug policy of Little Rock's Metropolitan Housing Alliance bans all residents from "engaging in illegal use of a drug." The policy doesn't specifically mention marijuana. The alliance is the largest housing authority in the state and serves about 8,000 people.
The policy refers to HUD regulations that deny admission to applicants and require removal of tenants from the housing program if they use illegal drugs.
Kenyon Lowe, a commissioner at the Little Rock agency, has been outspoken in past meetings about a need for the five-member board of commissioners to establish a policy.
"That's already been taken care of in our drug use policy," Lowe said in an interview. "All you have to do is get a copy of that, and it's all spelled out."
Across the river, the North Little Rock Housing Authority remains undecided.
Executive Director Belinda Snow said the board hasn't made a decision on a policy and that the agency's attorney was researching the best steps to take.
"We haven't had a reason at this point," Snow said.
Legal and bureaucratic snags delayed the sale of medical marijuana in Arkansas for months.
In Lonoke County, Gates said his agency has decided to follow a federal no-smoking policy for public housing that was enacted last year. But when it comes to oils and edibles, he said all requests will need to go through the agency housing manager.
The Lonoke authority will review each case, along with doctors' notes, to ensure that using medical marijuana "would not impact the housing authority in any negative way," he said.
None of the housing directors interviewed by the Democrat-Gazette said they had received any "reasonable accommodation" requests for medical marijuana.
A reasonable accommodation, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a change in rules, policies, practices or services to help someone with a disability use his home. Failure to provide these changes is a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
But a 2011 HUD Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity memo stated that although many states had legalized medical marijuana, HUD tenants can't receive reasonable accommodations for their prescriptions or protest evictions if they are caught using medical marijuana.
"Accommodations that allow the use of medical marijuana would sanction violations of federal criminal law and thus constitute a fundamental alteration in the nature of the housing operation," the memo reads in part. "Indeed, allowing such an accommodation would thwart a central programmatic goal of providing a safe living environment free from illegal drug use."
Campbell said that in the five-state region she serves, there has been only one Fair Housing complaint regarding medical marijuana since 2016. HUD determined that there was "no cause" to investigate, she said. The region includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
Carol Johnson, the executive director of the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission, said her office hadn't received any complaints and wasn't surprised "given the newness of the law."
Over the past year, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who serves as a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from Washington, D.C., has twice proposed bills that would allow public housing residents to use medical marijuana, in compliance with state law.
The first, from 2018, died. The second, which Norton introduced April 18, is in committee.
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