Marijuana Decriminalization Puts Housing Authority in a Bind
Last fall, the D.C. Housing Authority's board of directors voted to approve a change to the agency's rules, with the aim of making things simpler for the Housing Authority when confronting troublesome tenants. But as of today, things just got a lot more complicated.
The rule change gave the Housing Authority, which administers public housing and federally subsidized vouchers for low-income residents, the power to kick out program participants for misdemeanors and other infractions not previously covered by the agency’s guidelines. The Housing Authority justified the change by arguing that it had been nearly impossible to terminate problematic clients who were terrorizing their neighbors. Housing advocates countered that the Housing Authority would be able to put people and their families out on the street for something as minor as possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Well, as of today, possession of a small amount of marijuana is no longer a crime in the District—the punishment is now a $25 fine. That's given the Housing Authority a lot to sort out. And according to Housing Authority spokesman Rick White, it's still sorting it out.
"DCHA, along with other federally funded organizations across the nation, is currently reviewing and finalizing its 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,” White said in a statement in response to questions on how the Housing Authority would handle people caught with marijuana under the new D.C. law.
That's about as vague an answer as possible—but to be fair, the Housing Authority has a number of difficult questions to answer, and people to answer to. Remember, the federal government, which is the main source of Housing Authority funding, still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and the Park Police plans to continue arresting people caught with pot on federal land.
The first, and most basic, question, is how the Housing Authority handles tenants who are issued a $25 fine for possession. That tenant would never have been charged with a crime, meaning that the Housing Authority's rules likely wouldn't allow the agency to kick the person out. Then again, an explicit policy of tolerance could irk the feds and risk a loss of funding in the future, particularly if Republicans retake the White House.
If the Housing Authority does decide not to remove tenants for possession—and remember, it's not obligated to under the current rules; it just has the ability to, if it decides removal is warranted—then the question becomes what happens to people who were charged with marijuana possession before the decriminalization law took effect. Those people did commit a crime, but it might seem unfair to treat them differently from people who did the same thing a few weeks later.
And finally, if the Housing Authority adopts a stance of tolerance, there's the issue of federal charges. If a Housing Authority tenant is caught with pot on, say, the National Mall rather than a few yards away on city land, should he or she face the prospect of eviction?
These are thorny matters for an agency with both local and federal obligations. Some Housing Authority tenants are likely pleased to see marijuana decriminalized; after all, most of them are black, and black Washingtonians are eight times more likely than white ones to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to a recent ACLU study, even though blacks and whites in America smoke pot at about equal rates. But for the agency that houses them, the new law is little more than a headache.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery