Marijuana Legalization and Tenant Screening

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on November 26, 2012

Jokes abound about the legalization of marijuana use in Colorado and Washington. But it's not always a laughing matter. Affordable housing advocates have been passing around this link on the implications of marijuana legalization and tenant screening procedures. (h/t Trudy Soucoup, Homes First, via LinkedIn)

The article notes that it's still a federal crime, recommends a blanket no-smoking-anything policy, and claims that a no-smoking policy doesn't need a medical marijuana exception because there are other ways to take it (I'd be interested in an expert take on whether it's equivalent, but it seems plausible). But the follow bit stuck out to me:

"There is nothing in either statute or case law (at this juncture) that prohibits denial of tenancy for minor marijuana convictions—though few landlords actually do so.  Ultimately, it is within your rights as a landlord to deny tenancy for any reason you wish as long it is not either directly or indirectly discriminatory."

There's only one problem with this: the mounds of evidence that marijuana convictions are in fact themselves extremely discriminatory. Whites and blacks use (and deal) at the same rates (or some say whites smoke more), but arrest rates for blacks are about 10 times as high. These convictions, and the jail time that came with them, can have long lasting effects on employment and housing opportunities, not to mention disenfranchisement. 

While clearly, landlords and property managers can set their own standards about what actually happens on their properties (and I for one, would prefer living in a place with a no-smoking policy), I'd argue that screening for past marijuana convictions is in fact a racially discriminatory standard. I'm guessing though that it's not one the already-stretched fair housing community necessarily has the resources or desire to take on as a cause.

Meanwhile, what about nonprofits who are themselves developing tenant screening standards and on-site drug use rules? They often find themselves torn between wanting to give second chances to those barred from many other housing opportunities due to past convictions and wanting to respect the desires of other tenants, who are often looking to escape environments that come with a lot of drug dealing.

In the current climate of marijuana legalization gaining legitimacy, even from law enforcement, are we likely to see nonprofit housing providers also considering pot—either past convictions or current use—in a different light from other drug infractions?

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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