I-Team investigates complaints about pot in public housing


    A Portland woman says marijuana smoke in her building is affecting her health, even though the law is on her side.

    PORTLAND (WGME) -- A Portland woman says marijuana smoke in her building is affecting her health, even though the law is on her side.

    Brenda Sawyer said she and her husband live in subsidized housing at the Butler Payson apartments in Portland. It's been six years, but she said they're struggling to feel comfortable in their own home.

    "I can't take the smell much longer," said Sawyer.

    She said other tenants are smoking marijuana, which is against the property rules and harmful to her health.

    "It causes me to have severe asthma attacks, enough so I have to call for an ambulance because I'm not breathing right," she said.

    According to the American Thoracic Society, second-hand marijuana smoke can cause serious health problems in people with a chronic lung condition.

    Sawyer said it's been going on for years. The smoke wafts through open windows in the summer, and even through vents.

    "I can't leave the situation every time," Sawyer said.

    Despite several complaints to management, she said nothing has changed.

    "No one's enforcing that rule," said Sawyer.

    The building belongs to Avesta Housing, which owns more than 80 properties, a mix of affordable and subsidized housing

    "We have a very strict no smoking policy in all of our properties," said Sara Olson.

    Olson said the agency has followed up on every complaint in Sawyer's building.

    "We send a team in to talk to them," Olson said. "We put blanket communications out about our policy, reiterating it to residents, and we will put out lease violations if we catch someone smoking."

    She acknowledged it's hard to enforce.

    "Absolutely, sure. It's always a challenge," Olson said. "We're not on site 24 hours a day, nor is any property manager."

    She said it's all about keeping residents healthy and safe. But also at stake is federal funding.

    "This is illegal under federal law," said Tammie Snow, an attorney who specializes in marijuana laws.

    While marijuana is legal in Maine for medical and recreational use, both are trumped by federal law, which still classifies the drug as a Schedule I substance.

    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, released a memo in 2011, saying marijuana users are prohibited from being admitted into public housing, and left it up to local housing authorities to decide whether current tenants should be evicted.

    "There's some level of federal funding in any of our buildings, so those policies certainly play a role," said Olson. "I think we've been pretty proactive in that sense. We had already determined no smoking, no marijuana, so we feel comfortable with our policy and we feel good about it."

    "In my opinion, I don't really think there's any way to fight it," said Snow. "I had one case where I tried arguing that it was discrimination against someone with a disability and that just didn't go very far."

    For now, she said, it's pretty cut and dry.

    "What I've seen is housing authorities are really strict about it and they're enforcing it," she said.

    It leaves Sawyer a little puzzled about her situation. She's already on a waiting list to get into another building.

    "It's my home, and why should I be the one being forced out of here when I'm not the one breaking the rules?" asked Sawyer.

    Last summer, a D.C. congresswoman introduced legislation to allow the use of marijuana in public housing in those states that have legalized it for for medical or recreational purposes.

    There was no action taken on that bill, so it died in the last Congress. A spokesman didn't respond to messages from CBS 13 asking whether it will be reintroduced this session.

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