Currently, under federal law, there are millions of Americans in federally assisted housing that can be evicted if they are caught using, possessing or growing cannabis, even if they live in states where it is legal. But one D.C. resident and medical marijuana patient has inspired legislation that could change that.
Sondra Battle, 54, who lives in federally assisted housing in a Ward 7 apartment complex, struggles with the reality of the law and the chronic pain she faces because of fibromyalgia.
“Pain took my ability to work, it took my home and it took my personality,” Battle said. “I was trying to avoid the heavier medication, so I could be present to raise my daughter, who was a preteen at the time, so I opted for marijuana.”
She said the marijuana eases her suffering and said its most troublesome side effect has nothing to do with her health and everything to do with the fact that she could lose her housing.
She said within days of her filing a complaint to her property management company about the presence of black mold in her kitchen, residents in the complex got letters threatening that if marijuana use was discovered they would be evicted without the appeals process.
“It’s a weapon management can use against residents,” Battle said.
Federal regulations prohibit residents of federally assisted housing, including public housing and the Section 8 housing program, from using marijuana even if it is for medical purposes and allows landlords to evict residents based on drug use. Though local agencies issue the rental assistance vouchers, the vouchers are underwritten by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Now, the efforts of medical marijuana patients like Battle who have stood up to demand their rights have made it to Capitol Hill.
Last week Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) introduced the Marijuana in Federally Assisted Housing Parity Act of 2018, also known as the Sondra Battle Cannabis Fair Use Act, a bill in the House of Representatives that would permit the use of cannabis for residents in federally subsidized housing to use cannabis in parts of the country where it is already legal for medical or recreational purposes.
Battle said the legislation is a manifestation of the principles she wants to pass on to her daughter, who is now 32, and 10-year-old grandson: “Stand up for what you know is right, don’t let anyone bully you and don’t let bullying happen around you.”
The bill will also make it illegal for a person to be denied housing based on their use of cannabis in jurisdictions where it has been legalized. Under the legislation, smoking marijuana would be treated the same as smoking tobacco in federally assisted housing.
Though Norton will not be able to vote for the legislation, she said the bill recognizes today’s realities and proven needs.
“Residents like Sondra should not fear eviction from federally-assisted housing simply for using cannabis to treat their medical conditions,” Norton said. “Individuals who live in states where medical and or recreational marijuana is legal; but live in federally assisted housing, should have the same access to treatment as their neighbors.”
Norton signed the bill at a ceremony in her office with Battle and cofounders of the marijuana advocacy group DCMJ, Adam Eidinger and Nikolas Schiller. The group, which Battle joined four years ago, bought the idea of the legislation to Norton inspired by Battle.
Eidinger and Schiller founded DCMJ in 2013 as a campaign to change D.C.’s cannabis laws and later moved to support Ballot Initiative 71, which voters passed in 2014 to legalize personal cultivation and possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for adults 21 or older. Now, the group focuses on all cannabis users in the District having equal rights.
DCMJ said Battle opened the group’s eyes to why it is important to fight for all cannabis users and growers, calling the introduction of Norton’s bill cannabis reform history in the making. Recently, they began the “Bring It Home” campaign that seeks to protect medical marijuana patients receiving federally subsidized housing assistance.
“When this legislation is passed, it will ensure that low-income cannabis users are not treated like second-class citizens any longer,” they said.
DCMJ has sent flyers and memos to activists nationwide to visit their local HUD offices to protest the issue, kicking off the campaign outside the HUD building in D.C.
“Most cannabis reform legislation you read about concerns cannabis business interests and doesn’t affect the people you hear the least about — the poorest of our society,” DCMJ said in a statement. “[This] legislation is groundbreaking because it has the ability to affect millions of Americans and ensure they can choose a safer alternative to opiates.”