Marijuana laws are getting more liberal in D.C., creating legal conflicts with the federal government's continuing view of it as a prohibited drug.
The D.C. agency responsible for the city's public housing and housing voucher programs says it is still working its way through how to balance city laws that are becoming more permissive on marijuana and federal ones that continue to see it as an illegal drug.
In a letter to the D.C. Board of Elections, D.C. Housing Authority interim general counsel Ken Slaughter wrote that the agency — like those in states that have decriminalized or legalized marijuana — is weighing its options on how local and federal laws on marijuana could affect public housing tenants or recipients of housing vouchers.
"DCHA, along with other large public housing authorities across the nation, is currently reviewing its legal options pursuant to federal and local law regarding the use of recreational and medicinal use of marijuana, including the reconciliation of guidance from both [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and the United States Department of Justice," he wrote.
"The rapid changes of state law, juxtaposed with federal criminal laws that have not changed, have created quandaries for alignment of enforcement for both federal and local policymakers, including [public housing agencies]," he added.
Under federal law, marijuana is illegal and tenants of public housing can be evicted for drug-related offenses.
But in D.C. — where federal funds cover 98 percent of the D.C. Housing Agency's budget — medical marijuana is legal, the D.C. Council recently approved a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and a proposed initiative for the full legalization of possession of marijuana could make it on November's ballot.
This has created a legal quandary for the D.C. Housing Agency in managing its 8,000 housing units and 13,000 housing vouchers. The quandary became a central argument in a recent hearing at the Board of Elections over the ballot initiative's language.
D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan forcefully argued in a letter to the board that local drug laws could not contradict federal laws, while proponents of the initiative argued that the Housing Agency could still include drug prohibition provisions in leases while not actively evicting those that use marijuana as per D.C. law.
In his letter to the board, Slaughter distanced the Housing Authority from Nathan's position, saying that while he made valid points, he did not speak for the independent agency. He also said that while federal law is clear on drug use and public housing, it also allows individual agencies discretion on evicting tenants.
In 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development offered states with legal medical marijuana latitude in carrying out evictions of users. The Department of Justice has also said that it will not prioritize enforcing federal drug laws in states that liberalize their marijuana laws.
Slaughter wrote that the agency's commissioners would continue weighing the issue before deciding how to proceed.
"As one of the largest landlords and the leading provider of affordable housing, DCHA's policies on enforcement of drug laws, including related evictions or terminations, must consider the impact on its participants and tenants and will require thoughtful decision-making," he wrote.
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