By David Loomis
INDIANA — When Mary Cease sued the Housing Authority of Indiana County three years ago, she was caught in a classic Catch 22.
Cease, 69, a Navy veteran, PTSD sufferer and domestic-abuse survivor, had sought federal housing assistance here, away from her abuser, as she had received housing assistance in Wilkes-Barre. In Indiana County, however, the housing authority denied her because of medical marijuana, prescribed for her back pain and PTSD.
In Pennsylvania, as in most other states, medical marijuana is legal. But the federal government, stuck in a prohibitionist time warp, says it’s illegal. The local housing authority, a funnel for federal funds, reflexively sided with the feds. So did the local court. Cease appealed and moved away.
On Feb. 19, Commonwealth Court, an intermediate appellate panel in Harrisburg, sided with Ms. Cease. The court ruling directed the housing authority to set “fair and reasonable standards” for applicants who, like Ms. Cease, are legally prescribed medical marijuana under state law – not federal law. The housing authority has 90 days to re-think its standards, according to a Feb. 24 order issued by Indiana County Judge William J. Martin (who in 2019 sided with the housing authority and against Ms. Cease).
THIS WEEK, Ms. Cease expressed elation.
“Excellent!” she exclaimed in a March 3 phone interview from an undisclosed location in Pennsylvania. “I’m thrilled.”
Judith D. Cassel, Mary Cease’s pro bono Harrisburg attorney, shared her client’s reaction.
“It’s a complete reversal for the housing authority,” Ms. Cassel said in the March 3 phone interview. “It’s an amazing decision.”
Shannon L. Kundla, executive director of the housing authority, responded in a March 4 email.
“The Housing Authority is currently reviewing the opinion and order of court and considering its next steps,” she wrote.
Heather Gelles, chair of the housing authority board, did not respond to a March 4 email.
Bonni S. Dunlap, authority director until summer 2019, did not respond to a March 4 email.
THE FEB. 19 APPEALS COURT ruling acknowledged that other courts have come to other conclusions.
“Nevertheless, we are not bound by decisions of lower federal courts in other jurisdictions,” the three-judge panel wrote in their ruling. “Federalism, central to the constitutional design, adopts the principle that both the National and State Governments have elements of sovereignty the other is bound to respect…. While possession and use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law even for medical purposes, the federal [Controlled Substances Act] does not (and could not) require states to enforce it.”
So what does that tell the county’s housing authority about its exercise of authority in cases like Mary Cease’s? Use her case as a checklist, the court suggested: Is the use of the substance in question “in an unclear legal state such as that involved here?” Is the substance used reasonably, lawfully? What is the applicant’s background? Prior residence in federally assisted housing? Criminal record?
Under those criteria, Mary Cease should serve as a model applicant.
THE CEASE RULING makes clear suggestions for state lawmakers, too. In a 300-word footnote, the ruling cites several recent judicial recommendations for the legislature to fix statutory conflicts and to act on the state’s medical marijuana laws. Such legislative failures have produced what Pennsylvania courts have described as “illusory,” “absurd” and “egregious” outcomes.
State Rep. Jim Struzzi and state Sen. Joe Pittman, both Indiana Republicans, have some lawmaking to do, the court is suggesting.
“There are large ramifications across the state,” attorney Cassel said. “This is the start of something big.”
Editor’s note: The original version of this story reported in the second paragraph that Mary Cease’s medical marijuana use was one of several reasons for denial of assistance by the county housing authority. It was the only reason, as noted in the Feb. 19 appellate court ruling. The story has been changed to reflect that.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.