The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As pot flourishes in D.C., federal ban restricts use by tenants in public housing

In the District, it’s legal to smoke, possess and grow small quantities of marijuana in private homes, but not in public housing. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has filed legislation to change that.
In the District, it’s legal to smoke, possess and grow small quantities of marijuana in private homes, but not in public housing. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has filed legislation to change that. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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When he smokes marijuana, a pastime he has indulged in “every day, all day” for four decades, ­Tyrone Gathers says he makes sure to leave his apartment and the grounds of his public housing complex in the District.

While recreational marijuana is legal in the city — albeit with restrictions — it remains against the law on federal land, which includes subsidized housing projects such as Park Morton in Petworth, where Gathers lives.

Rather than face potential eviction for smoking in his apartment, Gathers walks down the street, past privately owned rowhouses, in which residents are free to smoke, possess and grow a limited amount of pot without the threat of legal consequences.

“I just say, ‘Whatever,’ ” Gathers, 64, said of the inconvenience. “They’ve got their laws and I’ve got mine. I take care of it my way.”

Five years ago, District voters passed Initiative 71, legalizing the private use, possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, a step that solidified the city’s national stature as a bastion of progressive policy.

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Yet for the 20,000 tenants in public housing, as well as those who live in subsidized units across the country, the relaxation of local marijuana laws makes no difference in what residents can do inside their apartments.

The restriction applies even to public housing tenants with medical marijuana cards, a constraint that was among the reasons that the city’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D), recently proposed that marijuana use be permitted in subsidized housing in the 33 states where cannabis is legal.

Even as it follows federal guidelines, the D.C. Housing Authority has not evicted any resident for using marijuana since Initiative 71 passed in 2014, said Christine Goodman, an agency spokeswoman.

Nevertheless, residents of subsidized housing in the District say that eviction remains a threat, sometimes delivered in sternly worded memos, such as the one Sondra Battle found in her building lobby a couple of years ago.

“It’s like the sword of Damocles dangling over peoples’ heads,” said Battle, who lives in a subsidized unit at the Stoneridge apartments in Southeast, a mixed-
income complex.

Battle, 55, who suffers from ­fibromyalgia, said she found the warning particularly infuriating since she has a medical marijuana card and said she needs pot to salve chronic pain. The District legalized medical marijuana in 2010.

She said she smokes marijuana in her apartment despite the potential legal risk because she is often in too much pain to walk down the street. “I’m basically living inside a bong,” Battle said. “Most of the people who live in this complex are doing it. How are you going to single out one unit when the whole building smells like it?”

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For public housing residents in the District, the disparity in marijuana laws fuels a perception that they are second-class citizens in a city where more affluent residents — sometimes living across the street — can indulge in their privately owned homes without a care. They can even order marijuana deliveries to their door from any one of a number of companies that have sprung up in recent years.

Even residents who don’t smoke said it was a matter of fairness.

“It’s discriminatory,” said Schyla Pondexter, 42, a former housing organizer who rents a subsidized unit at Highland Dwellings in Southeast. “Why should there be a special set of rules for someone just because they have to live in public housing? It’s like they treat us like we’re subhuman.”

Her complex recently installed security cameras, which she said feeds a perception among some tenants that the landlord is trying to catch them in illegal activity such as smoking pot to “kick us out.”

“Why are you watching everyone?” Pondexter asked. “You feel like you’re under attack by the police and by society. It feeds resentment, anxiety and fear.”

A few miles north, Dion Andrews, 27, a barista who lives with his mother at Langston Terrace Dwellings, a public housing complex near Benning Road NE, said he is careful to leave the grounds when he smokes pot.

“For any reason, they could say I’m breaking my lease and then I’d have to deal with a whole lot of nonsense,” he said as he unloaded groceries from his car the other day. Andrews said he worries that the pot laws could be a way for the authorities “to get us caught up in something so they can move us out” and free up land to sell to developers.

His mother, Cindy, 46, a government administrator who doesn’t smoke marijuana, said that public housing residents “should have the same freedoms as everyone else has.” “It’s like a Catch-22 for living here,” she said. “You can live here but you can’t do this and you can’t do that.”

Several years ago, the federal government banned cigarette smoking in public housing, a restriction that angered many residents.

Norton, a Democrat who first proposed the marijuana bill last June and reintroduced it last week, said that because marijuana is so widely used it is unlikely that law enforcement authorities would spend their time “smelling out” cannabis in public housing.

Nevertheless, she said public housing residents remain skittish about being caught because their leases are a “scarce commodity.”

Residents are saying, “ ‘ Goodness, I’m among a very few and I don’t want to jeopardize it for anything,’ ” Norton said. She said that the federal ban on marijuana “puts them in a category that essentially says they don’t have equal rights in their own home.”

Her legislation, she said, is intended to ensure “equity.”

At the Lincoln Heights public housing complex in Northeast, Robert Jackson, 38, said he resented that he had to walk outside his apartment to smoke a cigarette or a joint. “I should be able to do that behind closed doors,” he said. “I’m not bothering anyone. If you’re paying rent, you should be able to do what you want.”

Next to him, his buddy, a 55-year-old man who identified himself as Reggie G., expressed little sympathy for residents who complain about a double standard and want the ban lifted. “If I sign this lease and I don’t have to pay no more than $50 a month, I’m reaping a benefit,” Reggie said. “We all have to abide by rules and regulations.”

Then he laughed.

“If I wake up at 3 a.m. and want to smoke a joint in my bed, you know I will,” he said. “What are they going to do?”

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