Yesterday afternoon was the moment of truth for U.S. Army Veteran Jeff Crawford, who, due to his medical marijuana use was in danger of losing the subsidized housing he receives through the nonprofit Volunteers of America.
Crawford was understandably nervous about the meeting, fearing that he would be separated from his wife and two sons if he didn't start passing drug tests. But Ben Perdue, a case manager with VOA that has been sympathetic to Crawford's use of marijuana to treat his stomach ulcers, migraines, and arthritis, called the whole situation, "a big misunderstanding."
In a phone call, Perdue said, "He's not going to be evicted at all. Drug screening is just to help us help people who fall off the wagon with drugs like heroin." I also spoke with Orlando Ward, executive director of external affairs for VOA in L.A., who said, "It's not an untruth in terms of our transitional housing policy [that he could be evicted], but we consider the medical needs that are there… In this case, we don't have approval from the VA [for medical marijuana use]."
Crawford says he's getting mixed signals from the Department of Veterans Affairs, too. He claims his case worker, Katie Hashimoto, initially told him that if he didn't return a clean urine analysis he could be put in Narcotics Anonymous, removed from his apartment with VOA, and separated from his family. When Crawford met with Hashimoto yesterday, he says she denied telling him he could ever face those consequences. An attempt to reach Hashimoto for comment was met with a referral to VA's public affairs office in L.A., where a public affairs specialist told me, "Marijuana is not prescribed by VA clinicians nor dispensed by VA pharmacies because to do so would be a violation of federal law."
That doesn't actually clear things up for Crawford. We do know it's not impossible for a veteran to get help from the VA while on medical marijuana. VHA Directive 2011-004 states basically that the VA will neither help a veteran get access to a drug that is still classified as Schedule I by the Controlled Substances Act nor will they deny services if done in a state where it is legal, such as California. (The VA's outdated opinions on medical marijuana is a subject that I've written about before.)
For now, it looks like Crawford is clear of the immediate danger of losing his housing, but he has been asked to submit to regular drug tests and produce notes from his doctors that recommended using medical marijuana.
As Ward said: "It's our job to be flexible and work with folks, but we have to think of the 20 other people in the program… We help over 4,000 veterans each year." Ward added that although he's heard of a few reasons why VOA might want to transition Crawford to more "appropriate housing,"—noise complaints and a difficulty coming up with rent money—they're not going to simply make "an arbitrary transition."
When I spoke with Crawford and his wife yesterday evening after the meeting they were understandably relieved to be home but remain on edge. He says that a security guard comes to his apartment once a week about noise, even when his family is asleep. In an email, Crawford wrote:
So on top of the latest scare re: my medicine, which, btw, I do not take around my kids, I have this menacing security guard who follows us with his lights out at night and always seems to be parked outside our unit… I feel the Volunteers of America are going to try to find any reason to complain about us and have us removed. I understand now why there are so many homeless veterans (Freedom Fighters). Give us a break.
This situation has gotten Crawford support from several different agencies: Americans for Safe Access, the Assistance League, California NORML, Oaksterdam University, and Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access. Hopefully they can all work together with VOA to keep Crawford and his family stable and on their feet.