In Memory of Robert Jones
(Medical Marijuana and Public Housing Assistance)
“I am not a criminal. I have never been a criminal. I am not involved in drug related criminal activity. I beg you to keep my housing supplement.”
Robert Jones testifying at his San Miguel County, NM, HUD special hearing, November 24, 2010
I met Robert Jones just a few minutes before his hearing, our prior contacts having been by telephone and email. Robert was pushed in a wheelchair by his caregiver as they waited for the elevator to the County Commission Chambers. It was the day before Thanksgiving, November 24, 2010. In a few minutes the San Miguel County Commissioners would hear Robert’s appeal of the County Public Housing Authority’s decision to terminate his monthly HUD subsidy due to his “drug related criminal activity.” Robert, a registered medical marijuana patient, faced the prospect, at best, of a nursing home if his housing subsidy was not reinstated. He was visibly nervous, shaking and gasping for oxygen despite the oxygen tube in his nose. As Robert was my first client and this was to be my first hearing since becoming an attorney, we waited nervously together.
Robert was a 70 year old cancer survivor whose body had been ravaged by the disease and chemotherapy. Robert was one of the original patients in New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program when it started in 2007. He depended on marijuana to increase his appetite and reduce his pain.
In October 2010 Robert received a letter from the San Miguel County Section 8 Housing Authority informing him that he had been terminated from the housing assistance program, effective November 30. The letter read in part: “It came to our attention that participation in the State Medical Marijuana Program is legal within the State of New Mexico. Medical Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Therefore you are in violation of Section 15F of the Administrative Policy.” The relevant section of the policy Robert was accused of violating, Section 15 F, reads: “The Housing Authority may at any time terminate program assistance for a participant, because of any of the actions or inaction by the household … If any member of the family commits drug-related criminal activity, or violent criminal activity.” (Emphasis added).
Robert had been a marijuana activist and advocate throughout his life, even serving for a time as the Texas state project director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Thus, it was no secret that Robert was a medical marijuana patient. Always willing to take advantage of opportunities to educate others about medical marijuana, Robert even notified local government officials and law enforcement officers of his medical marijuana use. Retired and in frail health, Robert relied on his monthly HUD housing assistance payments to pay his rent. Without continued assistance, the best Robert could hope for was a nursing home. There was a fair amount of local, state and national interest in Robert’s case. Robert was even featured in a November 9, 2010 USA Today article.
The two hour hearing went well. Our argument was that, under HUD’s own guidelines, the local Housing Authority had discretion with respect to the termination of a current participant (as opposed to a new applicant) and that the Commission’s determination should be based on relevant considerations including: Robert’s physical condition, the housing alternatives available to him, and the extent to which the housing authority would benefit from terminating him. Robert’s landlord testified that Robert was a good tenant. His pastor and local officials testified to his good character and his contributions to the community. His caregiver and a medical doctor testified about his poor health and the importance and benefits of his using medical marijuana. The State Senator who had sponsored New Mexico’s Medical Marijuana law in 2006, Cisco McSorley, also testified for Robert via telephone. Finally, Robert testified on his own behalf describing his physical health, the benefits he received from using Medical Marijuana and what would happen to him if his housing assistance was not reinstated. Robert pleaded, “I am not a criminal. I have never been a criminal. I am not involved in drug related criminal activity. I beg you to keep my housing supplement.”
In the end, the Commissioners voted unanimously to rescind the termination decision and to reinstate Robert’s subsidy. Several of the Commissioners personally apologized to Robert for the ordeal. Addressing concerns about what would happen if HUD tried to punish the County for allowing Robert to remain in the program, the Commission Chair suggested, “we need to take care of our citizens” and “maybe it’s time to stand up.” HUD issued a new memo regarding Medical Marijuana in public housing just two months later that, fortunately, confirmed our position.
Robert was so pleased and relieved after the hearing: smiling, laughing, shaking hands. We didn’t get a chance to celebrate his victory for very long, though, as Robert had to leave town right away to have Thanksgiving with relatives in Texas. It was indeed a good Thanksgiving for all of us.
I never saw Robert again – he passed away in May of 2011.
I don’t know if the stress of his ordeal ultimately had any ill effect on his health or in any way contributed to his passing when he did – Robert was indeed a very sick man. I do know that by allowing me to represent him, Robert had a profound effect on me personally and helped inspire the creation of Drug War Stories.
I was scheduled to meet with Robert again just a couple of days before he died – his was to be the first story presented here. While that won’t happen as I had hoped and envisioned, Robert’s spirit remains and continues to inspire.
Thank you Robert, you will be missed.
Jeremy Theoret, President, Drug War Stories
Watch video excerpts from Robert’s San Miguel County, NM, HUD special hearing, November 24, 2010:
Read the November 9, 2010 USA Today article about Robert
Read a January 1, 2011 article in the AARP Bulletin featuring Robert
Read a May 26, 2011 Las Vegas (NM) Optic article of Robert’s passing