One of Redding’s most vocal medical cannabis advocates is questioning whether a low-income housing program run by the city illegally discriminates against marijuana patients, and he’s asked the Shasta County district attorney to weigh in on the matter.
Meanwhile, city officials maintain they’re following guidelines set forth by the federal agency funding the program.
Rob McDonald, 50, said the city’s policy of denying or terminating assistance to Section 8 participants who use medical marijuana may be illegally discriminatory, regardless of any federal policies in place.
“The city has a charter through the state of California, not the federal government, so it is beholden to state law,” McDonald said.
McDonald is behind the attempts, so far unsuccessful, to begin recalls of Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko and three Redding City Council members.
Section 8 housing, funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a federal rental-discount program for very-low-income people.
McDonald said he’s is meeting with District Attorney Steve Carlton on Wednesday to ask for an opinion on the legality of that policy.
McDonald points to an April memo from the Redding Housing Authority to Section 8 participants and landlords as evidence of his claim. That memo says federal law requires the Redding Housing Authority to deny or terminate Section 8 assistance if a participant uses cannabis, regardless of whether the user has a doctor’s recommendation.
McDonald said he got the memo from James Benno, another vocal medical marijuana patient and advocate.
Benno said he called the Washington offices of the Department of Housing — which funds Redding’s Section 8 voucher program, and asked if it was federal policy to discriminate against medical marijuana patients in states where medical marijuana is decriminalized.
“I called Washington, D.C., and they told me no such policy exists,” Benno said. “Redding is on a witch hunt, encouraging
landlords to evict current tenants and that was what that memo was all about.”
Benno first called HUD last year but didn’t get the name of the person he spoke to, he said. His attempts to report the city’s alleged discrimination to HUD have been unsuccessful, Benno said.
Nicole Smith, housing program supervisor with the Redding Housing Authority, said the city’s Section 8 policy reflects federal law.
While the city is required to deny Section 8 assistance to new applicants who use marijuana, Smith said, the housing authority does have discretion on whether to end assistance to current Section 8 participants.
“Really, we do look at it on a case-by-case basis and determine whether it’s against our drug and violent criminal activity policy,” she said. “Usually what we will do is contact the family, explain what is happening and give them the opportunity to no longer participate in the behavior.”
The Redding Housing Authority’s criminal activity policy states the agency may end assistance to Section 8 participants using illegal drugs.
Smith said any decision made by the housing authority can be appealed to an informal hearing or review.
Gene Gibson, a HUD spokeswoman based in San Francisco, said public housing authorities, including Redding’s, do have discretion on whether to end assistance for current Section 8 participants using cannabis.
But housing authorities, she said, must also have a policy in place regarding whether they will end assistance to medical marijuana users.
“This is kind of a touchy situation,” Gibson said. “In this particular one, (HUD) really does leave it up to the housing authority.”
City Attorney Rick Duvernay said he doesn’t believe the Redding Housing Authority’s policies are discriminatory.
“The truth is that some cities are stricter about monitoring and terminating assistance, and some are more lax,” Duvernay said. “It’s my impression that the city of Redding has a fairly strict monitoring program, relative to other cities.”
In the eyes of the law, he said, there’s a difference between some rights and others.
He said medical marijuana users seem to consistently claim their use is a fundamental right and any attempt to abridge that right is wrong and illegal.
“There are only a handful of ‘fundamental rights’ that rise to the level of being recognized in the law — race, color, creed, gender, religion,” Duvernay said recently. “Being a medical marijuana user is not one of them, and does not put one into a protected class.”