The law legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Illinois (which goes into effect New Years Day) was passed with many caveats, including tight restrictions on where folks can light up.
You can’t do it at public parks, on sidewalks, in a car or on school grounds. Maybe you can at specially-licensed tasting rooms, though that’s still being worked out.
The limitations mean that home might be the only place where you can use weed legally —at least for some.
That’s why WBEZ reader Melinda Croes asked the question: “Since weed will be legal, how will this impact housing and housing laws? Will apartments/condos be able to restrict usage?”
The law gives landlords complete discretion on whether to allow renters to use cannabis on their property. So for private renters, the answer is still up in the air. You can read more here.
But for the nearly 63,000 low-income households on federal housing assistance in Chicago and another 17,000 in suburban Cook County, it’s a done deal: no marijuana allowed because it’s illegal at the federal level.
Here’s what public housing activists are saying and doing about the discrepancy.
A blanket ban — even for medical marijuana patients
The blanket ban on marijuana affects all households receiving federal housing assistance regardless of whether a resident holds a medical marijuana card.
“If a medical marijuana patient who happens to be low-income cannot treat themselves with the remedies set forth by a doctor than we really have a problem,” said Willie "J.R." Fleming, with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, to a crowd of folks who gathered to talk about the issue Wednesday at the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago's River North neighborhood. “It’s borderline disability discrimination.”
A bill introduced this year in the U.S. Congress would alleviate the problem by allowing public housing residents to use marijuana in states where it’s legal.
But, Fleming said, it’s unacceptable that people in public housing can currently be punished, and possibly lose their housing, for partaking in legal recreational weed. That’s especially true in Illinois, a state that has touted efforts to remedy the effects of the war on drugs through its marijuana legislation, he said.
“There are a lot of poor communities in the city of Chicago but there ain’t a goddamn community in Chicago that was hit harder by the war on drugs and over-policing than the public housing community.”
In some mixed-income buildings, rules can vary door to door
Activists say one of the most stark illustrations of the ban’s inequality is that some residents living under the same roof would be barred from using marijuana at home, while their neighbors smoke freely.
That’s because many federal housing assistance recipients in Illinois live in mixed-income housing or in private market buildings. In those cases, someone receiving assistance could be next door to someone who doesn’t receive assistance and for whom the ban doesn’t apply.
“We share the same plumbing,” said Francine Washington, president of the Washington Park Local Advisory Council and a Chicago Housing Authority board member. “So if you do it to me, you gotta do it to my neighbor. I can’t smoke marijuana in my house but I can just go over right across the hall and smoke it in my neighbor’s house. How does that make sense?”
For many, the ban is reminiscent of a rule implemented in Illinois last year that bars public housing residents from smoking cigarettes but has no impact on their market-rate neighbors.
Washington said it’s problematic because it’s almost entirely unenforceable.
“We share the same vent system,” she said. “How could you possibly tell where the smoke is coming from without catching me in the act?”
The Chicago Housing Authority announced it does not need an arrest or conviction to punish tenants for smoking weed.
Acting CHA CEO James Bebley said the housing authority is working to educate residents on how the federal marijuana law affects them. He said if there’s suspicion a resident is using marijuana at home they’ll be asked to stop and referred to social support services if necessary. They could also lose their assistance and be evicted if the problem persists, he said.
Activists are pushing for "sanctuary"
Activists say while the most important step forward is to push for weed decriminalization at the federal level, they are pushing for action locally, too.
“We’re making recommendations for protection — almost like sanctuary protection — for public housing residents, similarly to how we protect undocumented folks,” Fleming said, referring to the city’s policy of not cooperating with federal immigration officials when they’re carrying out immigration raids.
Fleming said he’s working on a cannabis task force to make policy recommendations to the mayor’s office. Protection would ideally mean a directive from the mayor’s office to CHA and to Chicago police to not enforce marijuana-based evictions, he said.
When asked about Fleming's proposal, the mayor’s office referred to the federal law prohibiting cannabis use or possession in subsidized buildings.
“The city of Chicago and CHA will work with the community so that residents understand how federal law relates to cannabis and federally-funded housing,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
Bebley reiterated the CHA is beholden to federal law and said CPD is not involved in CHA eviction processes unless the eviction involves a violent crime or “illegal matter that requires an officer witness.”
“And that certainly wouldn’t involve smoking marijuana,” Bebley said.
Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.
Illustrations are by WBEZ's interactive producer Paula Friedrich. You can follow her on Twitter @pauliebe.