AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine State Housing Authority has decided it will not provide rental assistance to anyone who uses, possesses or cultivates medical marijuana in apartments that are paid for in part through the federal Section 8 program.

“We did this out of deference to federal law,” Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for MaineHousing, told the Bangor Daily News.

To be clear, MaineHousing’s decision does not affect a person’s status as a medical marijuana user or grower in Maine. It also doesn’t mean that registered users or growers of medical marijuana are immediately booted from the Section 8 program; it just means they are not allowed to do it in an apartment that receives federal subsidies, Turcotte said.

“It’s their choice,” she said. “They can go use it at a family member or friend’s house, as long as the family and friend’s houses or homes are not federally subsidized by Section 8.”

The agency became aware of the issue about three months ago, when during a series of Section 8 housing inspections — related to alleged mismanagement of the program — it became clear a handful of program participants also were medical marijuana growers or users, which revealed a complex situation where state and federal law does not agree.

In Maine, medical marijuana is legal to use and grow for certain people. Federal law, however, still considers marijuana, medical or not, an illegal controlled substance.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the federal Section 8 program, does not allow public housing authorities, such as MaineHousing, to admit a medical marijuana user into the program, according to a statement from MaineHousing. But the federal agency did allow state agencies to set their own policy to address current Section 8 voucher holders who are certified to use medical marijuana, Turcotte said.

MaineHousing’s board thought long and hard about the decision, she said. They read over state and federal law, and heard from landlords and tenants. But in the end, because of the federal government’s strict guidelines when it comes to controlled substances, “the board decided to apply that to medical marijuana, as well,” Turcotte said.

If the board had made the opposite decision, it would have put additional burden on MaineHousing’s inspectors, who are responsible for annually inspecting the approximately 3,900 Section 8 housing units in the state. They are trained to inspect homes for housing-related issues, not on how to tell a medical marijuana plant from an illegal plant. There are several federal and state laws that affect marijuana and medical marijuana use, Turcotte said, “but we are not trained on those ourselves. We administer housing programs.”

Turcotte said that there are currently fewer than 10 residents that MaineHousing knows of who are not in compliance with its new policy. Those residents have been notified and will be given time to comply, Turcotte said.

“If they’re unable to comply, we’re required to terminate their housing assistance,” she said.

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.