Chicago Housing Authority’s pot ban means no legal cannabis mechanism for the poor

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While marijuana arrests are certainly down in Chicago, questions have arisen about whether a new ban on using soon-to-be legal marijuana in public housing ends up being a continuation of old drug war policies in the communities already hit the hardest.

In the beginning of November, The Chicago Housing Authority sent out a letter to 60,000 tenants. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in that letter the CHA let it’s residents know despite the change in law coming to the state of Illinois, marijuana is still illegal under federal law and will be treated as such. This warning applied to both recreational and medical use. 

The CHA noted the policy was dictated by the fact they are a federally funded entity. In accordance, they’ve used federal housing guidelines around Section 8 assistance, with a dash of local interpretation built into the guidelines, to establish a one-strike policy to evict people over a single marijuana possession offense. 

The Chicago Reporter reported on the tale of Jessica Moore. In 2009 19 officers ripped her apartment to pieces finding her son’s $48 worth of pot.  Her son was now a part of the statistics of Chicago’s most rapidly gentrified neighborhoods of the 2000s, the 2nd and 27th wards, as the city saw misdemeanor arrests rise to account for 76% of the arrests used to trigger evictions from CHA properties. As in Moore’s case, many where not the leaseholders. 

The CHA wide language on their enforcement allows any criminal conviction to activate the one-strike conviction.

One-strike cases are the only kind of public housing eviction that does not give tenants the opportunity to file a grievance or request an internal hearing. They have to take it to civil court, but for people living in public housing, getting their own legal assistance to try and keep a roof over their head is a stretch.

Moore described watching Chicago police come to kick doors in on a daily basis. “The police would come into the building each day either knocking into somebody’s apartment or grabbing guys downstairs,” Moore told the reporter. That building she was in was eventually torn down. 

The Reporter noted that during the last 20 months her building was occupied, 19 households were hit with a one-strike eviction. The leading cause in those evictions was a misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest. 

Discrimination in Cannabis Enforcement

Despite cannabis arrest rates continuing to crash in Chicago, the racial bias to those who end up in handcuffs is still readily evident. In the final stretch until legalization in Illinois is implemented, some now wonder if enforcement of cannabis laws in the city’s poorest neighborhoods will change at all. 

We reached out to see how things had changed in DC since those HUD comments a decade ago; their reply put the CHA on its best footing yet to discriminate against pot, depending on interpretation. But it also suggested the CHA doesn’t have to kick these people out. 

“The smoking ban was implemented on July 31, 2018 and before that more than 600 public housing authorities already had similar policies in place including CHA,” HUD’s Regional Public Affairs/Congressional Affairs Liaison, Gina Rodriguez, told High Times in an email. Much of the specifics around smoking is tobacco-oriented. 

We asked HUD if they provided any specific language for those housing authorities in states with legal marijuana. Rodriguez provided the agency guidebook for implementing a smoke-free policy. The guidebook approached the question in its Q&A, but the answers seem a little blurry. 

“Does the policy prevent the use of lit medical (or recreational) marijuana inside a PHA?

The PHA is still subject to the federal regulations regarding marijuana. Federal regulations still classify all forms of marijuana as a Schedule I substance, even if state law permits it. Smoking marijuana is grounds for a PHA to deny housing or terminate a tenancy,” reads page 36.

The next section covered how to handle marijuana with current residents—and refuted the idea you have to have a one-strike policy for marijuana violations. “Lease provisions and policies cannot affirmatively permit occupancy by marijuana users, but [public housing authorities] have discretion to determine, on a case-by-case basis, when it is appropriate to terminate tenancy or assistance based on marijuana use.”

Next covered was accommodating medical marijuana, which again called into question the idea of the CHA being forced to evict people over marijuana use. When it comes to someone asking for a medical exemption to use marijuana, “PHAs cannot grant such requests. That said, PHAs retain discretion whether to terminate tenancy or assistance of current residents who engage in the use of marijuana.”

In another fun “you don’t have to kick people out of public housing for using pot” twist, the guide covered incense after weed, where it stated the smoke-free rule only applies to lit tobacco products. “It is up to the PHA to decide if other products, such as candles, and incense, are subject to similar regulations”

So basically, all these federal guidelines the Chicago Housing Authority are trying to cite to defend their stance come January 1st don’t actually say they have to kick people out for smoking weed. Can they create a policy around it? Sure. But that policy certainly is not federally mandated to kick out marijuana users without remorse or discretion. 

We asked the CHA for clarification: would they implement a one-strike policy or exercise discretion? 

This was the CHA’s reply:

The CHA and City of Chicago are committed to ensuring a safe, responsible implementation of legalized cannabis next year. To that end, we have begun coordinating efforts with all City departments and sister agencies to inform residents of how the new law affects them. This includes working closely with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) where federal law still prohibits the use or possession of medical or recreational marijuana on federally-subsidized properties. The City of Chicago and CHA will work with the community so that residents understand federal law related to cannabis and federally-funded housing.

Similar to the prohibition on smoking in public housing, CHA’s goals are threefold:

  • Educate and inform residents about federal law and how it affects them
  • Support them in their efforts to legally exercise their rights
  • Provide social or clinical support or referrals, where necessary or appropriate

To ensure that all residents are treated equally and fairly and made aware of resources that are available to support them, CHA will be training its property managers and meeting with the resident organizations so that they are informed and supported.

Our priority is to ensure a safe and responsible implementation of legalized cannabis in Chicago on January 1, 2020 that is fair and equitable to all Chicago residents regardless of where they live.

The Criticism of The Policy

We also reached out to the ACLU of Illinois to get their take on whether the CHA’s policy is just a continuation of old racist and classist enforcement policies, and if it’s a de facto ban on the poor being able to legally consume cannabis. 

“It is critical to take deliberative, carefully-calculated measures to assure that any remaining criminal enforcement of marijuana in Illinois not replicate harms seen in the failed War on Drugs,” Ben Ruddell, Criminal Justice Policy Director, ACLU of Illinois told high times in an email. “Those who rent their homes, those living in public housing, and those experiencing homelessness remain at risk of criminal penalty. We should take steps so that any such enforcement is not done in a racially-discriminatory way.”  

Dominique Coronel is a community organizer with the Cannabis Equity IL Coalition, an Illinois social equity applicant partner, and a board member for Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

“Let’s be clear. There are a tremendous amount of problematic and deeply racist and classist elements within the Illinois legalization legislation, and this is one of the most blatant examples of that. It is another manifestation of the War on Drugs,” Coronel told High Times. “By prohibiting public consumption and without currently established license consumption cafes, lawmakers are forcing people to make some very difficult choices: Do they consume cannabis at home and risk losing their housing? Do they go outside to consume and risk interrogation and ticketing by CPD for public consumption?”

Coronel worries Chicago police are going to use public consumption as probable cause to justify a search and seizure of that person’s property. “Are Black and Brown people going to continue being unfairly targeted as we know they statistically tend to be?” he said. 

Coronel said the kinds of policies like the one we will see in Chicago public housing come January are inherently discriminatory and racist because there is no public consumption of cannabis. 

“We are essentially creating a system that punishes poor people and people of color disproportionately because you either need to be a property owner or of a higher class to benefit from legalization. So when we talk about cannabis legalization we must continuously ask, “legalization for whom?” he said. 

We asked the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Media Relations Director Morgan Fox if he’s heard of any other industry that has a whole income bracket prevented from accessing it due to their housing situation. 

“Not that I can think of,” Fox replied, “This is just another way that prohibition continues to disproportionately harm low-income communities. We need to deschedule cannabis at the federal level so public housing authorities can develop cannabis policies that align with those in their states. Any responsible adult should be able to partake in their legal ability to safely consume cannabis, regardless of income or housing status. This is fundamentally an issue of fairness.”

Fox, like others, said social consumption options would help significantly.

“I think this is also a good example of how some of the problems associated with prohibition go way beyond cannabis,” Fox said, “Legalization can definitely help by reducing overall arrest numbers, but systemic bias is pervasive and deeply ingrained in our society. It won’t just go away overnight with legalization, and the people and institutions that support inequality seem to keep finding ways to perpetuate it, even when you take away their tools for doing so.”

Local activists are now organizing to figure out the next steps in light of the CHA letters going out. On Wednesday night The National Public Housing Museum hosted an event called Cannabis Legislation, Racial Equity, Reparative Justice & Public Housing. It was billed as a public conversation about “the future of cannabis in Illinois and the fight for justice and equity in public housing communities, some of the people and places that have been most impacted by the war on drugs.”

The evening included representatives from the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, Grow Greater Englewood, and lawyer Kelli Dudley. Dudley works on the south side of Chicago fighting discrimination and segregation by defending mortgage foreclosure lawsuits and bringing claims against shady lenders, servicers, and others where appropriate.

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