Two of the city's public-housing agencies have told their tenants they cannot smoke medical marijuana in their apartments and houses.
The warnings from REACH Community Development and Home Forward (formerly known as the Housing Authority of Portland) have drawn a line for the first time as the federal government continues to apply pressure to limit use of medical marijuana in Oregon.
Home Forward has started telling tenants of its 6,200 units that smoking medical marijuana in their residences could get them evicted, even if they had been given prior permission to do so. But they can use medical marijuana in other forms. The letter says the ban will start in November.
REACH has gone a step further, telling residents they cannot use medical marijuana in any form if their unit receives a federal subsidy or if they rely on a Section 8 housing voucher, also funded by a federal program.
REACH officials didn't return calls from WW.
But Dianne Quast, Home Forward's director of real estate, says her organization has been waiting for federal guidance out of fear it would violate state law if it denied tenants the right to use medical marijuana, or federal law if it allowed such use.
She says Home Forward simply decided to fold marijuana into its general nonsmoking policy, which it put in place a year and a half ago.
"We were stuck between two laws," Quast says.
The housing providers' notices follow a series of warnings to states from U.S. attorneys, including Oregon's Dwight Holton, that medical-marijuana dispensaries may violate federal drug laws.
"It's really disappointing, and I'm not sure, frankly, that it's lawful or constitutional," says Leland Berger, a lawyer who helped draft Oregon's medical marijuana law and now represents patients and providers statewide. "It wouldn't surprise me to see more litigation."
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and that's meant federal agencies and U.S. prosecutors have been at odds with state and local governments in the 16 states and District of Columbia where the drug is approved for use.
Early in the Obama administration, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. Justice Department would not interfere with medical-marijuana operations under state law.
But this year, the Justice Department signaled a change, telling governors of medical-marijuana states it would do more to police the drug's use.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, sent a memo in January to organizations it subsidizes, says Donna White, national spokeswoman for the agency. In Oregon, those agencies run about 44,000 housing units, home to between 88,000 and 132,000 people.
In the memo, HUD leaves the decision to evict medical-marijuana users to housing providers, but it forbids them from granting "reasonable accommodation" for its use. Reasonable accommodation protects people with a disability from eviction—until now, that included anyone with a medical-marijuana card.
Home Forward says it won't seek any evictions. REACH's ban on medical marijuana in any form in its HUD-subsidized properties could mean users would be kicked out.
HUD also directs housing providers to deny applicants who disclose they use medical marijuana. For Home Forward, that means it must also deny such applicants for Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize rent for private properties.
"So we simply don't ask," Quast says.
Leland Jones, HUD's regional spokesman in Seattle, says the memo stems from his agency's efforts to clarify federal policy toward medical marijuana as states expand its use.
"It's important that all partners receiving federal assistance know what our rules of the game are," Jones says.
Some housing providers were probably confused before the memo, he adds.
Some still are. Human Solutions is a Portland-based nonprofit that accepts Section 8 vouchers, but officials there don't know what the policy means for them.
"We are aware of the ruling, but it was unclear from our point of view whether it was imposed on us," says Jean DeMaster, Human Solutions' director. "As a result, we'll continue to serve people who use medical marijuana as long as they have the marijuana card."
Read The Letter