If you happened by the HUD building November 1, you probably saw a makeshift jail cell containing Adam Eidinger, the leader of the cannabis advocacy group DCMJ, surrounded by fellow members handing out free bags of cannabis and edibles to anyone 21 years of age and older.
The “Haunted by HUD” protest was meant to raise awareness about how federal drug laws discriminate against people living in federally-subsidized homes, and to be a rallying call to change them.
Marijuana is legal to grow and use in DC–unless you’re in federally-subsidized housing
Cannabis, for the most part, is legal under District law in Washington, DC. (Not in the federally-controlled areas.) Medical use was legalized in the late 90s although sales didn't happen until 2013, and recreational use was legalized in 2014 with Initiative 71.
Initiative 71 gives district residents the right to grow, use, and gift small amounts of cannabis. Legislation to further regulate and sell the plant recreationally is currently being held up by congress.
Despite its legalized and more socially-accepted status in the District, the law isn't applied equitably for everyone. Most renters and all homeowners can grow and use cannabis as they like, although there is some legal grey area. However, for people living in federally-subsidized housing, eviction is the likely outcome of being caught with marijuana.
A 2014 memorandum on the use of marijuana in federally-subsidized housing directs owners of these properties to evict tenants for any criminal activity. This includes medical and legalized recreational use of cannabis–both which are still illegal under the CSA, or Controlled Substance Act–which is a federal law. This guidance covers both public housing and project-based Section 8 housing, but it does not cover housing choice vouchers. The DC Housing Authority and DC project-based landlords have more discretion.
Owners are further required to “establish policies which allow termination of tenancy of any household with a member who is illegally using marijuana.”
It’s more serious than not being able to get high–these laws invite abuse
For more than 30,000 people in the District who participate in a federally subsidized housing program, this creates a double standard. Beyond that, DCMJ's leader, Adam Eidinger says owners and landlords use the law to threaten and discriminate.
“[Tenants] try to report mold, substandard living conditions, but if they report it, the landlord threatens to report them for using cannabis, which generally gets them evicted,” Eidinger says.
Eidinger pointed out that federally-subsidized housing is often a final option for people in financial straits, “You may get sick and lose your job, your house, and this is where you end up. And if you take this [housing] away because of medical cannabis, you’re just increasing the homeless population.”
Over loudspeaker, several protesters said they feared repercussions if their cannabis use was found out.
Two protesters, one, a disabled man and the other a veteran, extolled the benefits they reaped from cannabis, crediting the plant with coaxing them off opioids to managing PTSD. (New data show that cannabis works both as a moderate pain reliever and correlates highly with lower opioid use in legal states.)
Marijuana laws concerning DC should be updated
Regardless of what is true or not about the medical benefits of cannabis, District residents have a legal right and should be able to exercise it. However, the people participating in federally subsidized housing programs have their hands tied. Lease agreements are strict, binding, and zero tolerance.
Eidinger called these policies draconian, and accused the federal government of not updating regulations when it comes to facts and social acceptance surrounding cannabis.
In order to make the situation more equitable for DC residents who want to exercise their legal right to consume marijuana, Eidinger suggested designating a place to use cannabis lawfully on the premises.
“Maybe not in your apartment,” he continued, “but in designated smoking areas. Give people a legal option and stop evicting them for using cannabis.”
At the beginning of the protest Eidinger implored HUD from inside the makeshift jail cell to change the rules and to not enforce them in states that have legalized cannabis.
“Plus, it’s an Obama-era regulation you can get rid of. Trump can use it to his own political advantage,” Eidinger continued. That is something that cannabis users on both sides could probably agree on.
With so much support in the community behind legalization and his own group's growing activism, Eidinger feels like this is the right time to have this conversation: “We’re pretty determined to see this policy changed, and today is the opening salvo. We want Ben Carson on the record. He needs to speak up.”
For now, Eidinger said that those with the privilege of being able to speak because they own their own houses, should step up.
“We’re the people that wrote the initiative and we’re going to expand our rights a little bit more,” Eidinger said. “We always knew that subsistence housing recipients would not be protected under our initiative. That wasn’t us making it happen, it was the federal government.”