View attachment 50398 Getting caught with a small amount of marijuana is supposedly not a big deal anymore. Even in New Hampshire — the only New England state yet to decriminalize pot — first-time offenders just have to appear in court, plead guilty and pay a fine. Then they are free to move on with their lives.
Or at least that’s what many New Hampshire cops, prosecutors and lawmakers would like you to believe.
Lorraine Sevigny and Brian Cardinale know better. Their lives are about to be turned upside down because of a petty offense. Chalk up another “win” for the war on drugs. Three days after Lebanon police knocked on the door of their one-bedroom apartment and a search turned up a small amount of marijuana, the couple had another unannounced visitor. This time, the landlord’s director of property management had come to hand deliver an eviction notice.
Sevigny, 62, and Cardinale, 59, have until June 14 — five weeks from the date of their arrests — to get out, according to the eviction notice. Last week, when I stopped by the apartment in West Lebanon where Sevigny has lived for 11 years, moving boxes were being stockpiled in the living room. Not that Sevigny and Cardinale had any idea what they were going to do after they finish packing up.
“We have nowhere to go,” Sevigny told me.
Sevigny and Cardinale are both disabled, and say they smoke pot for pain relief. She’s dealing with the debilitating effects of a traumatic brain injury incurred long ago in a car crash. He suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system for which there is no known cure. They have been a couple for 20 years, but only started living together three months ago. In February, a fire destroyed the apartment building in Hartford where Cardinale lived. The fire started in another apartment, but Cardinale lost nearly everything.
The day after the fire, Sevigny contacted her landlord, Twin Pines Housing Trust, to find out how to go about adding Cardinale to her lease, or getting him an apartment of his own. (Twin Pines, a nonprofit organization based in White River Junction, purchased the Beachwood Lane and the adjacent Pine Tree Lane apartment complexes for low-income residents in November.) Sevigny was still waiting to hear back from Twin Pines when police came knocking on May 10, a Tuesday. Earlier that day, Lebanon cops had received “drug intel” about marijuana use at the 100-unit apartment complex from a source who wouldn’t give her name. Shortly before suppertime, Sevigny opened her door to three police officers standing on the small front porch.
According to their report, cops said they could smell marijuana. Sevigny and Cardinale, who was inside at the time, told me that police threatened to seize the apartment and they’d be out on the street if they didn’t consent to a search of the premises.
“They admitted they smoke and gave consent” to a search, the police report states. We didn’t have a choice,” Sevigny said. “The place was going to be taped up.”
Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello told me that he’s confident his officers played by the rules and didn’t misrepresent their powers. Sevigny and Cardinale cooperated with the search, pointing police in the direction of the kitchen where a glass jar contained a small amount of marijuana.
Often times, Lebanon police who made 157 pot busts (three a week) last year, will handcuff offenders and take them to the station to be booked. But it was such a small amount (Cardinale guesses less than a half ounce), police apparently didn’t feel the need. Sevigny and Cardinale were given summons to appear in Lebanon District Court on June 27 on the misdemeanor charge.
“The way this was handled was appropriate,” Mello said. “Until the state Legislature tells me that certain amounts of marijuana, other than medical marijuana, are legal, this is what we’re going to do. There’s still a law to enforce.” For Sevigny and Cardinale, marijuana is a benign alternative to prescription painkillers. “I already take 18 meds a day,” said Cardinale, bringing out out a tray of pill bottles from the kitchen.
He is a Navy veteran and was a truck driver and carpet installer until the MS robbed him of leg and arm strength. Cardinale, who walks with the aid of cane, has benefited from Sevigny’s apartment being on the first floor. “Stairs are my mortal enemy,” he said. “I’m lucky. I’m not in a wheelchair.” During the search, one of the Lebanon officers said to Cardinale, “You know you can get medical marijuana.”
New Hampshire passed a law in 2013 allowing for the medical use of marijuana, but it took nearly three years to implement. A dispensary in Lebanon finally opened last month. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do Cardinale much good. “You need an address to get medical marijuana,” he said. “I don’t have one.” After being burned out of his apartment in Hartford, he had been waiting for Twin Pines to finish his paperwork to see if he could stay with Sevigny or was eligible for his own place.
From his dealings with the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, he’s become friendly with a small group of veterans. A couple of the vets grow marijuana for their personal use, and give a little bit to him for free, Cardinale told me. Sevigny also finds that smoking marijuana on occasion lessens her headaches and other pains. When she was in her 20s, Sevigny was involved in a serious car crash that left her in a coma for a month. She’s never been the same. She worked in medical sales in the Boston area, but had trouble keeping her concentration and dealing with chronic pain. It was “20 years of going job after job after job,” she said.
Sevigny receives a monthly Social Security disability payment that covers her rent and other living expenses. Although she’s no longer able to hold down a job, she keeps busy. From the looks of her spotless apartment, she spends a fair amount of time with a vacuum cleaner and dust cloth in her hand.
During my visit, unlike Lebanon police, I didn’t catch even a whiff of burnt marijuana. Only the smell of warm chocolate cheesecake that Sevigny was baking in the kitchen for a friend. Until recently, Sevigny volunteered twice a week at the Good Neighbor Health Clinic in downtown White River Junction. She did everything from caring for the office’s plants to finding the best prescription drug prices for patients. “She was very helpful to us,” said Dana Michalovic, executive director of the free clinic.
I heard about what had happened to Sevigny from Wayne Gersen, the retired superintendent of schools in Hanover and Norwich. Gersen and Sevigny met a half dozen years ago through a meditation group that gathers weekly in Norwich. “She has as big a heart as anyone I know,” Gersen said. Gersen and other friends are sort of at wits’ end trying to help Sevigny and Cardinale out of their predicament.
It’s bad enough that the couple is looking at combined fines and court fees of $1,000 or more. As I mentioned earlier, three days after police showed up, Sevigny received an eviction notice. As is its practice, Lebanon police immediately notified Twin Pines of the pot bust, which, under the terms of Sevigny’s lease, automatically triggers eviction proceedings. Last week, I spent more than an hour talking with Twin Pines Executive Director Andrew Winter. Due to privacy concerns, Winter said he couldn’t talk about individual tenants. But from our conversation, I could tell that Twin Pines was in a tough spot. The nonprofit purchased the two low-income housing complexes last year with the help of a $6.8 million federal loan.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes low-interest loans for rural housing under the condition that there be a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs. “While we recognize that state policies on marijuana are rapidly evolving, we still need to comply with federal restrictions that govern the financing of our properties,” Winter said.
Sevigny called New Hampshire Legal Assistance last week in hopes of getting free legal help. Under the law, she can appeal the eviction notice in court. If nothing else, it could buy her and Cardinale a little time. The two apartment complexes, which Twin Pines has renamed the Village at Crafts Hill, have had their share of drug problems, including a recent heroin overdose. Some cleaning up was probably overdue. But I’m not sure that evicting Sevigny and Cardinale is going to accomplish much, other than put a disabled couple on the verge of homelessness.
The law isn’t solving a problem here; it’s creating a much bigger one.
By Jim Kenyon - Valley News/May 28, 2016
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