DOLORES – Smoking cannabis? Not a good idea while living in federally subsidized housing, even if the drug has been prescribed by a doctor.
Some residents are finding out the hard way that there is a glaring discrepancy between Colorado’s liberal marijuana laws and the federal government’s outright ban on the substance.
Lea Olivier, an 87-year-old low-income resident living in Dolores, is the latest casualty. She has lived there for five years but says she has been ordered to vacate her rent-subsidized apartment on Central Avenue for allegedly violating the illegal-substances policy.
“A compliance officer said they smelled pot coming from my residence,” she says. “I don’t think it was even me. I’ve used it before to ease arthritis pain.”
Olivier, who lives alone, is now faced with finding alternative housing but is concerned she cannot afford it on her fixed Social Security income.
“I’ll live in a tent or my car if I have to,” she said. “I’ve got 10 days to move, but when I get knocked down, I get back up.”
Terri Wheeler, executive director of Housing Authority of Montezuma County, said conflicting laws on marijuana have become a problem for federal housing operations.
She could not discuss Olivier’s file because of confidentiality regulations but explained there is a “zero tolerance” policy for use or possession of drugs considered illegal by the federal government.
“It has become a problem, and is confusing because marijuana is legal in the state,” Wheeler said. “Residents sign an agreement that they know it is not allowed on the property.”
For Olivier, the rule is too onerous and not practical.
“I’m tired of their petty demands,” she said. “Now, I have to use pain pills, which I don’t like to do.”
Olivier worked in the restaurant business all her life in California. She said a concerned friend guided her to marijuana as an alternative to alcohol.
“It helped me recover from that destructive lifestyle,” Olivier said.
She has medical marijuana card prescribed to control pain but wonders why. Since Amendment 64 passed in Colorado, adults are allowed to purchase and possess marijuana.
“Why should I grease a doctor’s palm to have a medical card?” she asks, referring to annual renewal fees.
Wheeler said since Amendment 64 passed, six residents were required to vacate federal housing for violating the ban on marijuana use. The authority oversees 393 low-income apartments with federal subsidies.
“It was an issue before as well, but state legalization has not helped,” she said.
There is an appeal process for residents who are found to be violating drug laws. While regulations are strictly enforced, they are administered with a practical approach based on circumstances.
“We’re not cold about it; warnings have been given for marijuana. For meth, there is no going back,” Wheeler said. “We know there are valid medical uses for marijuana, but we have to comply with HUD regulations, or we lose our subsidies for people who need housing assistance.”
More education is needed regarding legal use of marijuana in Colorado. Besides being banned within federal housing, it is also illegal to use or possess at federally owned or regulated facilities, including airports, national forest lands, national parks and national monuments.
“We’re doing a lot of re-explaining. You cannot grow marijuana, possess it or use it in our housing units even though the state legalized it,” Wheeler said. “Habitual users usually move out because of the rules.”
Olivier said property managers instruct residents to leave the boundaries of the apartment complex if they want to consume marijuana. Annual inspections of apartments are a part of living in subsidized housing. If illegal drugs turn up, leases are not renewed or notices to vacate are issued.
“They told us to go beyond a certain gate or leave in our car and go somewhere else, but we cannot keep anything in our car if it is parked on their property,” Olivier said. “It is ridiculous; I don’t want to live here anymore anyway.”
One jurisdiction’s solution is another one’s problem. Smoking marijuana in public spaces, including in parks or on trails, is also not allowed under Colorado marijuana laws.