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No pot use allowed in public housing even though it’s legal in Illinois, CHA says

The agency said it must abide by federal laws that still classify marijuana in the same category as heroin.

Tenants living in public housing buildings in Chicago are prohibited from smoking marijuana in their units despite laws that legalize its consumption in Illinois.
(AP Photo/file)

Public housing tenants excited about new state marijuana laws are in for a letdown.

The Chicago Housing Authority is reminding all 63,000 households under its watch that marijuana use is still illegal under federal law — making Illinois’ medical and recreational cannabis laws useless within its confines.

“The CHA can TERMINATE all assistance ... if you, a member of your household, or a guest or person under your control is found engaging in drug-related criminal activity, including the use and/or possession of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes,” reads a notice sent last week to housing voucher recipients.

Tenants in public housing buildings will receive a similar notice next week, a CHA spokesperson said.

Starting Jan. 1, adults in Illinois can buy and consume marijuana recreationally. And the state has allowed people with cannabis prescriptions to obtain a medical marijuana card since 2014. But the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin.

In a statement, the CHA said that “as a federally-funded agency, [it] is governed by all federal laws.”

Advocates say the blanket ban on weed in public housing — even for those with medical marijuana cards — ends up hurting marginalized tenants the most, particularly people living with disabilities.

“Marijuana is sometimes the only thing that ameliorates someone’s disability because they’re allergic to certain types of medication,” said Mary Rosenberg, a staff attorney with Access Living, a civil rights organization. “It’s unfair not to allow these folks to use it essentially because they’re poor and live in subsidized housing.”

State lawmakers are still trying to figure out where people can consume marijuana in public spaces.

Originally, the law granted businesses the right to apply for exemptions to the Smoke Free Illinois Act so their customers could smoke indoors. But special interest groups raised alarms over the potential of transforming previously smoke-free public spaces into pot lounges.

Lawmakers are currently reworking the law to appease both sides but the number of public places where people can consume marijuana could be severely limited.

“The easiest thing to get through right now is a tasting room in a [marijuana] dispensary,” said State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, one of the lead sponsors of the bill. “Moving forward, finding a parallel to the hookah lounge and a cigar club will be more helpful.”

Without ample public spaces to consume marijuana, public housing tenants might be effectively barred from exercising their right to spark up, said Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

“Residents who live in subsidized housing don’t have the same rights as the rest of us do,” she said. “They can’t consume marijuana in their home even though the state legalized it or they’ll lose their housing subsidy. And the majority of people who live in federally assisted housing in Illinois are people of color, so it’s creating a racial equity issue in the state.”

Both Cassidy and Walz said that much of the problem boils down to federal regulation of marijuana. As long as its still considered a federal criminal offense to possess, manufacture and distribute marijuana, they said, people living in federally funded public housing who consume the drug are at risk of eviction.

But that’s not stopping Jacqueline Reynolds.

Reynolds, 67, lives in a senior public housing building in Old Town. Reynolds says marijuana is the only thing that keeps her blood pressure down. So she smokes two to three joints a day.

“I’ve been able to get off two of my blood pressure medications after I started smoking,” Reynolds said. “Those drugs used to give me crazy side effects. But marijuana doesn’t give me any side effects.”

So far, Reynolds says she hasn’t gotten in trouble for smoking pot. “But if they don’t let me do what I need to do,” she said, “I’m gonna do it anyway because I’m more afraid of dying than I am being put out of my apartment.”

Contributing: Tom Schuba

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.