Disabled who use drug in face eviction at federally subsidized housing
OLATHE — Bill Hewitt's thrice-daily medicine is laid out on a tiny table in his trailer: a couple of marijuana buds alongside a glass pipe and a Zippo lighter.
Hewitt, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, is a card-carrying medical- marijuana user. And he is living in this worn-down travel trailer because he was evicted from federally subsidized housing on account of his marijuana use.
The difference between Colorado's legal acceptance of marijuana for medical use and federal law, which categorizes marijuana as an illegal drug, is resulting in a housing quandary for the disabled.
Even with the state's OK to use medical marijuana, people such as Hewitt can't live in federal housing or receive federal subsidies for rent under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Housing Choice Voucher Program.
Hewitt and another medical-marijuana user from Durango have challenged that policy with HUD's fair-housing division and in court. The policy has drawn lawsuits in at least two of the other 13 states that allow medical-marijuana use. But so far HUD has prevailed. HUD officials stress they have no choice in the matter.
"HUD lawyers are very clear about this. There is not to be any substance abuse in federal housing or voucher housing," said Teresa Duran, interim director of the Colorado Division of Housing. "Until the federal laws change, we have to abide by that."
There is no data to say how widespread the problem is. HUD officials say they don't track evictions or complaints tied to medical- marijuana use.
Medical-marijuana users and suppliers say it is common and becoming more so.
"It's safe to say this is a growing problem. We're going to encounter it more," said Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, a nonprofit resource for medical- marijuana users.
Hewitt said he knows three other disabled users in federally subsidized housing in the small town of Olathe who plan to move into his trailer park rather than fight HUD rules.
"It's disgusting. Most disabled can't afford a house, so they get assistance. These people should not be thrown in the street because they use a medication that alleviates pain," Hewitt said.
He said he received an eviction notice this spring, a day after HUD inspectors looked over his rental house and told him everything was satisfactory. He said he gave them a copy of his medical-marijuana card months before that.
But Tim Heavers, director of the Montrose County Housing Authority, said all residents of federally subsidized housing or those who are receiving housing vouchers for private rentals are warned up front about illegal drug use.
Hewitt said he may have received that warning, but Colorado voters legalized the use of medical marijuana in 2000.
Hewitt said smoking marijuana has allowed him to cut out many prescription medications with bad side effects. He said he no longer uses tranquilizers, muscle relaxers, sleeping pills and a nerve drug. He still takes medications for his heart, bladder and stomach and a half dose of the painkiller methadone.
Travis Chambers, who owns God's Gift, a medical- marijuana dispensary in Clifton, said that points to the irony in the federal housing rules.
"You can sit there and do morphine and Oxycontin and all the other heavy drugs you want," he said. "But not marijuana."
Chris Hermes with Americans for Safe Access called the HUD denials "discrimination."
"Many of these patients have no options for where they consume their medical marijuana. They are disabled," Hermes said.
In Durango, Vietnam veteran Andrew Rizzo said he was evicted from a federally subsidized housing complex after other residents complained about the odor of marijuana smoke from his apartment. He said it is not feasible to go somewhere else to smoke it, nor to use a different delivery method such as balms, tinctures or pills, because they don't have the same effect.
While the issue works its way through the bureaucracy, Hewitt is fearing winter in his little trailer. He said the owner has told him it will be like an icebox. And he has to make his way about 50 yards across a lot to use a restroom in a former gas station.
"It's a lot harder than living in a house," he said. "But the peace and the freedom is so worth it."
By Nancy Lofholm
August 28, 2009
The Denver Post