Mary’s Choice: She could have medical cannabis or she could have a roof over her head – but federal law said she couldn’t have both

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Mary Cease, 68, a disabled veteran who lives in the Pittsburgh area, was recently denied federally subsidized housing on the sole ground that she uses medical cannabis – even though Pennsylvania legalized cannabis as medicine in 2016.

Mary was discharged from the US Navy decades ago due to an injury that left her with metal rods in her back, PTSD, and chronic pain. She became a state-approved medical cannabis patient in 2018 after she became worried about becoming addicted to her pain-killing opioids and her doctor recommended that she substitute newly state-legal cannabis for the hard prescription narcotics.

Separately, she applied for federal housing and in answer to a question on her application, truthfully said she was a state-approved cannabis patient. That triggered her disqualification on the basis of the 1970 federal Controlled Substances Act which considers cannabis not just illegal but dangerous, placing it in the same category as heroin and LSD.

Mary has rightly appealed. As her lawyer put it to the Philadelphia Inquirer this week:

If you’re low-income or indigent, you have to go on opioids. That’s what we’re trying to get people to understand. People shouldn’t have to choose between a roof over their head and their medication.

Mary also sees the bigger picture. “This case isn’t just about me,” she said. “I’m setting a precedent for thousands of other people in the same situation due to bureaucratic nonsense.”

Indeed she would be, and not just for federal housing tenancy. Landlords in general can deny housing or evict people solely because they’re a medical cannabis patient. It’s lease dependent, meaning the agreement you sign with your landlord would have to have language such as no “illegal drugs,” “medical cannabis,” or “you must abide by state and federal law.”

But if there is such language, whether you’re in Pennsylvania or elsewhere you’re a sitting duck.

There is a way around this – decriminalize cannabis by removing it from the CSA. In fact, the House passed a bill to do just this in December. And now with a new government in Washington, leading senate democrats including majority leader Chuck Schumer have released a statement promising sweeping cannabis reform. It reads in part:

We are committed to working together to put forward and advance comprehensive cannabis reform legislation that will not only turn the page on this sad chapter in American history, but also undo the devastating consequences of these discriminatory policies. The Senate will make consideration of these reforms a priority.

In the early part of this year, we will release a unified discussion draft on comprehensive reform to ensure restorative justice, protect public health and implement responsible taxes and regulations. Getting input from stakeholder groups will be an important part of developing this critical legislation.

Here’s a stakeholder group needing public health protection: Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program treats 23 serious medical conditions, such as cancer, PTSD, epilepsy, and glaucoma. As of December 2020, more than a half million patients and caregivers are registered.

Multiply that across 50 states and you have an idea of the number of people whose pain and suffering could be helped with this emerging therapy – free from federal legal entanglement, free from having to choose between their health and a home.

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