Thursday, March 13, 2014
Does medical marijuana equal bad parenting?
Shawnee Anderson's voice is shrill, quavering -- on the edge of desperate. She clutches her 11-month-old son, Sage, while trying to comprehend the situation unfolding in front of her.
Her boyfriend -- Sage's father, Aaron Hillyer -- is in handcuffs.
"Why are you doing this?" she pleads with police officers standing on the lawn outside her home.
"Your baby doesn't need to be subjected to marijuana," an officer replies, in an audio recording made by Anderson on her cell phone.
But she could explain: Anderson and Hillyer have legal prescriptions for the marijuana in their home. His is prescribed for anxiety and chronic pain; hers for depression and anxiety.
"I told them we had our cards, our prescriptions," said Anderson, 27. "They didn't want to see them."
Not long after that exchange, according to police video of the family's encounter, a social worker arrived at the home and decided to place Sage in foster care.
"I was pleading with them, 'Look, you guys, I understand your perception, but we are wonderful parents, hardworking members of our community,'" said Hillyer, 34.
"They could not conceive of the fact that you can be a wonderful parent, a decent human being, and medicate with marijuana."
For agencies enlisted to protect children, marijuana in the home has for decades been an invitation for serious speculation about a parent's fitness.
But as the narrative of medical marijuana legalization unfolds across the country, so does a complicated parallel story of patients whose children are being removed to protective custody -- or worse, permanently removed -- ostensibly because of their legal marijuana use. Most medical marijuana legislation does not seem to account for this possibility.
"The judges, the police, CPS (child protective services) have been fighting this war on drugs for so long," said Maria Green, a medical marijuana patient in Lansing, Michigan, whose infant daughter Bree was placed in foster care last year.
"They just can't get it out of their minds that this is an 'evil' drug they have to fight against."
To be sure, each case has unique circumstances, and child welfare officials at both the state and local level do not comment about specific cases while they are in process, or even once they are closed.
Further complicating the picture: While medical marijuana use is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies the drug as a Schedule I substance with "no currently accepted medical use in the United States" and high potential for abuse.
In cases involving removal of children, medical marijuana found in the home would seem to be barely distinguishable from other Schedule I substances -- such as heroin or ecstasy.
"CPS handles (cases) the same way regardless of what the drug ... is," said Michael Weston, deputy director of public affairs and outreach programs at the California Department of Social Services. "Everything is weighed in reference to, 'Is this a danger to the child? Is there a potential harm to the child? Is this showing signs of abuse or neglect?'"
There have been no substantive studies yet to determine how medical marijuana impacts parenting.
There is early data, according to a researcher, suggesting a small increase in child poisonings among medical marijuana patients in states where it is legal. And early epidemiological data draws a link between medical cannabis use and increased corporal punishment and physical abuse -- but not neglect.
"We really don't know what's going on," said Bridget Freisthler, an associate professor in the department of social welfare at UCLA, who studies medical marijuana use among parents.
"We don't know whether (medical marijuana) affects parenting or whether caseworkers need to be concerned when they find out this is happening in the home."
Parents fighting to maintain custody of their children say the mere presence of medical marijuana is an almost reflexive trigger for removal.
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