A Western Pennsylvania woman has found herself caught in the crossfire of conflicting federal and state medical marijuana laws.
Mary Cease, 66, wants to move from a rural public housing apartment complex into more private and urban Section 8 housing. Her medical condition — and specifically the medical marijuana she uses for treatment — has blocked her.
Last December, Ms. Cease successfully applied for a medical marijuana card under Pennsylvania's 2016 law allowing access for patients with certain medical conditions. She qualified because of pain from multiple back surgeries that left her unable to work, and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress.
Federal law considers marijuana illegal in all forms and for all uses.
Indiana County and all other housing authorities also have specific guidance on medical marijuana from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 2011, HUD's assistant secretary for public and Indian housing sent out a memorandum nationwide. "Based on federal law, new admissions of medical marijuana users are prohibited" for public housing and voucher programs, the memo said.
That position was reinforced in 2014 by another HUD memo that said owners of federally assisted housing "must deny admission to assisted housing for any household with a member determined to be illegally using a controlled substance, e.g., marijuana."
While the HUD memos are direct and clear, housing authorities do have some flexibility, said Judith Cassel, a Harrisburg-based attorney who is representing Ms. Cease on a pro bono basis.
The prohibition refers to new admissions to public housing, she noted, not current residents. For current public housing residents, the 2011 HUD memo states that housing authorities "have discretion to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the appropriateness of program termination of existing residents for the use of medical marijuana."
Ms. Cease may be new to the Section 8 voucher program — in which the government subsidizes up to 70 percent of the total rent — but Ms. Cassel argues that her client is already a resident in public housing and so deserves consideration.
Ms. Cease was briefly in the U.S. Navy before receiving a medical discharge. Because of her medical ailments, she has not worked for more than 15 years. She moved to Indiana County three years ago following her divorce and now shares her public housing apartment in Clymer with her pet pug, Brigit.
A lover of classical music and an artist herself, she does not own a car and says the lack of public transportation near her complex has left her feeling trapped.
"I just can't sit in my apartment and languish the rest of my life."
Following three back surgeries going back to 2001, Ms. Cease said she took opioids to tame her pain, primarily oxycodone. She also took valium for anxiety.
"I felt disconnected on opioids," she said. "I felt like less of a human being because I knew they were bad drugs."
Not long after Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program started, she applied for the required state-issued card that allows her access to the medication. She vapes medical marijuana in cartridges that she buys at a Butler dispensary when friends can drive her there.
"I finally got the relief," she said of the marijuana's effect. "You feel normal. You get the relief that you need and you're living like a regular human being."
She has also weaned herself from opioids.
Rather than a gateway to harder drugs, as some marijuana opponents believe, she says medical marijuana provided a path away from them. "If you want the opioid crisis to stop," she declared, "there's your answer right there."
Public housing is in short supply and getting in can be a challenge. Wait lists are common and sometimes country programs close temporarily due to high demand.
To even be considered, applicants must answer a number of possibly disqualifying questions about their background, such as whether they are a registered sex offender, or have been charged or convicted of a violent crime in the past three years.
The online application form on the Indiana County authority's website, for example, asks if applicants have been charged or convicted of a drug-related crime the past three years. Ms. Cease says neither applies to her.
"I've never even had a parking ticket," she said in a recent interview. "I've never had a police officer pull me over."
The form does not ask if the applicants use medical marijuana.
Ms. Cease disclosed that information in her application so it would not become an issue later. "I didn't want to get caught down the road."
Her application for Section 8 housing in Indiana County does meet one key financial criteria: Her annual income since her divorce three years ago, she says, is about $10,000.
To qualify, a family's income must be less than 50 percent of the local area's median gross income; Ms. Cassel said her client's income is about $3,000 below the Indiana County maximum.
Ms. Cease has met with housing authorities twice, the second time in July for an informal hearing on the merits of her application. The authority's written denial suggests she was turned down for deducting her medical marijuana purchases in calculating her adjusted income.
But after documenting that she still qualified based on income after removing those costs, she says authority officials shifted to a more general explanation that the denial was based on federal laws that outlaw marijuana use.
Bonni Dunlap, Indiana County Housing Authority's executive director, wrote in response to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette inquiry that she "can't comment at this time" on the policy regarding medical marijuana use and she referred inquiries back to the HUD memos.
Pittsburgh-based housing authorities said they follow the HUD guidelines, too, but emphasized that denials are subject to appeal and suggested they give consideration to individual circumstances.
The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, for example, "is not at liberty to grant a reasonable accommodation for medical marijuana use," said spokesman Chuck Rohrer. But he also added that it "is not our current practice" to evict residents who are certified to use medical marijuana.
Frank Aggazio, spokesman for the Allegheny County Housing Authority, similarly said that appeals are decided "on a case-by-case basis" and accommodations have been made for medical conditions such as autism.
Because medical marijuana has been legal in other states for years, the public housing issue has come up before and there is an effort at the federal level to reconcile the conflicting state and federal laws.
In June, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, introduced a bill that would allow medical or recreational use of marijuana in federally assisted housing if state law allows it. A spokesman for the congresswoman said this week that they are still gathering cosponsors for the bill.
Ms. Cease has one more chance to make her case at a still-unscheduled formal hearing before the authority, and another denial could be appealed in civil court.
She's not optimistic about the outcome.
"What they're going to do is say, 'We get federal funding and it's against federal law,'" she said.
"It's a crazy thing to do to an old woman who has no criminal background, and who owes nobody anything, and is living in a place where you cannot expand your mind."