Mary Davis poses for a portrait inside of her home in Minnetonka, MN on February 28, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Several times a day Mary Davis ducks into the passenger seat of her car parked outside her Minnetonka townhome and discreetly inhales cannabis from a vape pen in full public view. 

“It’s very quick,” Davis said. “I just go out and come right back in—back and forth throughout the day. But never in the driver’s seat, because I don’t want to get into trouble.” 

Davis, 33, is a medical cannabis patient, but she’s not allowed to take the prescribed medication inside her own home. That’s because she lives in federal Section 8 housing, where the activity is strictly prohibited by law. For the time being, Davis is stuck in a Catch-22 that has her worried she’ll become another statistic—a Black woman criminalized for marijuana use.

Davis’s landlord—the Metropolitan Council—told her she can store but not use cannabis inside her home. But workers at the dispensary where she purchases cannabis told her she can’t use it in public. 

Davis fears the day she has to explain to the police why she’s using cannabis outside. 

“Are they going to listen to me?” she said. “Or is it going to go from zero to 100 while they are trying to prove a point?”

For the past four years Davis has been prescribed cannabis to treat chronic pain. Soon after moving into Section 8 housing, federally assisted housing for low-income households, last October, she learned that she couldn’t use cannabis inside her home because it’s an illegal drug under federal law. 

There is no reliable information to show how many people across the state or country are in Davis’ shoes, but state and federal health and housing officials said she’s not the only one caught between conflicting state and federal practices.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development bans cannabis use—even with a state prescription

“This has been an issue for medical cannabis patients living in public housing,” said Scott Smith, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health, which operates the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. “Federally subsidized housing can, and does, include the federal prohibition against cannabis, resulting in a prohibition of all forms of state medical cannabis in such housing.”

Andrea Roebker, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, offered a similar take on Davis’s situation. 

“Without a change in federal law, users of marijuana, including medical marijuana, cannot be admitted to public housing,” Roebker said.

Next week, Davis plans to switch from vaping cannabis to smoking cannabis flower, which state lawmakers recently approved for the first time since medical cannabis was legalized in Minnesota in 2014. The flower is more potent and should better relieve her pain, Davis said, but she worries that its stronger aroma will draw more attention to her and could prompt neighbors and passersby to call the police. 

While vaping cannabis produces a faint odor that quickly vanishes, smoking flower from a pipe or joint produces a much more pungent odor and thick smoke that lingers around longer. 

The possible impact on Davis’s 11-year-old son is especially concerning to her given high-profile incidents in Minnesota and across the country where police have killed Black civilians.

“I wouldn’t want that type of experience happening, and he’s watching out the window and sees the police coming,” she said. “That’s scary, just with what’s been going on in the world with the police.”

Domestic abuse led to injury—and chronic pain

Davis said she’s in physical pain every day, which stems partly from surviving domestic violence. Eleven years ago, her then-boyfriend threw a glass bottle at her head, causing her to lose her left eye. 

She wears a prosthetic eye and said she suffers from several medical conditions, including chronic migraines, fibromyalgia and posttraumatic stress disorder. She’s also been diagnosed with intractable pain, which is pain that isn’t easily treatable with standard medicine or care

Davis took standard pain relief pills like Tylenol and ibuprofen until 2018, when she says those medications became ineffective. That year Davis spoke with her doctor about enrolling in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. Today, she uses a vape pen as needed to manage her pain, sometimes running out to her car 20 to 30 times a day for several minutes at a time.

Davis said she suffers almost daily from migraines and nerve pain from fibromyalgia that courses throughout her body, sometimes causing her to vomit. On a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 being the most painful, Davis said she often finds herself at an 8 or 9. Vaping cannabis can temporarily bring that pain down to a 7, she said.

At first, Davis tried to work around the federal prohibition by vaping outside on her patio. That didn’t last long after a neighbor confronted her and threatened to call the police. 

“What if my doctors told me I had to use it?” she recalled telling the man.

“No,” he replied.

Davis was filled with trepidation as the exchange made her realize she couldn’t use the medicine anywhere.

As a public housing landlord, Met Council confronts gaps between state and federal laws

Met Council spokesperson Bonnie Kollodge said the issue comes up regularly and that they apply the federal law strictly. 

“Marijuana is still federally illegal, so the regulations preclude its use in federally assisted housing,” Kollodge said. “There is no exception for medical marijuana.”

Public housing authorities “have case-by-case discretion to end tenancy for those determined to be illegally using a controlled substance, including state legalized medical marijuana,” said Roebker of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Maren Schroeder, policy director for Sensible Change Minnesota, which advocates for drug reform, said Minnesota has public housing protections for medical cannabis patients at the state and local level, but not the federal level. 

“There’s not a good fix for the situation without the federal government making a change, because the federal funding is an issue,” Schroeder said. “The fact that she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place is demonstrative for the need for action.” 

That would require an executive order from President Joe Biden that federal agencies consider taking cannabis off the federal Schedule 1 designation, which defines it as an illegal controlled substance with no medical properties. Alternatively, an act of Congress could decriminalize cannabis. 

Cannabis advocates differ on which method would be more effective and realistic. Neither scenario seems likely at the moment, said Karen O’Keefe, state policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for cannabis reform on a national level. 

That said, federal housing authorities can decide, at their own discretion, to enforce or not enforce the federal law banning cannabis, O’Keefe added. She pointed to a case in New York where a landlord evicted a 78-year-old medical cannabis patient from a HUD property for this very reason and changed course a few days later after a public uproar. 

“I would hope and think HUD could just have a non-enforcement policy,” O’Keefe said. 

For the time being, Davis is uncertain where she’s going to smoke cannabis flower once she switches to it. She hasn’t eliminated the option of smoking it in her car, though the prospect scares her. The workers at her dispensary had a suggestion—her patio.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...