Police found no evidence of a physical domestic dispute when they raided the Napa, California, home of Shawnee Anderson and Aaron Hillyer in January, after a neighbor complained about a loud and potentially violent argument. What the cops did find, though, was evidence of marijuana and paraphernalia in the couple's home—which, with an 11-month-old baby present, was concerning. That both Anderson and Hillyer were licensed medical marijuana users under California law didn't matter.
Police claim their drug use, though technically legal, was putting their son in harm's way. And while Anderson and Hillyer were eventually able to appeal their case in juvenile dependency court and re-gain custody of their son, it cost them more than a year of legal battles, $15,000 in legal fees, five days in jail, and two weeks in foster care for their son.
Although marijuana is legal in some form throughout more than 20 states and in Washington, D.C., in the eyes of Child Protective Services, parents who are even occasional weed users can face accusations of child neglect or abuse, and risk losing their children as a result. "The real issue is that state [medical marijuana] patient laws don't protect parents," Shaleen Title, a Massachusetts-based attorney told the Daily Beast in May. "Parents are at risk everywhere."
In North Dakota, a child can be considered "deprived" if found in the same room as drug paraphernalia.
Until policies adapt, parents who consume marijuana legally won't be viewed differently than other hard drug users, no matter how responsible they may be around their children. As a result, the relationship between marijuana use and parenting ability is quickly becoming a third rail issue, one that hasn't been navigated, some argue, since the days of alcohol prohibition.
"There are far too many people who presume that if you smoke marijuana, you're not a qualified parent," Keith Stroup, founder and legal counsel for NORML told the Washington Post in June. "That's the result of 80 years of prohibition, and the natural tendency to presume there's something terribly wrong with it. Only 14 percent of the country are regular marijuana smokers. Eighty-six percent are not. A lot of people still presume that if you have children, you should not smoke. Even though they're quite comfortable with you drinking alcohol around children."
And because of that presumption, seemingly capable parents run the risk of losing their kids.
Around the country, there have been other headline-grabbing cases like Anderson and Hillyer's. In June, Shona Banda, a medical marijuana activist in Garden City, Kansas, was charged with five felony counts of possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, and manufacturing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC); two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia; and one count of child endangerment, according to news reports. CPS removed her 11-year-old son from their home in March, after the child described her pot use during an anti-drug presentation at school. Banda, who has spoken publicly on YouTube about using marijuana to treat her Crohn's disease, faces a maximum of 30 years in prison.
And Banda isn't the only one to suffer from an oversharing child. In 2013, Diane Fornbacher—a mother of two and publisher of LadyBud.com—was investigated by CPS after her son brought up her stances on hemp activism and reform at school. "Her autistic 9-year-old son learned the benefits, and shared them with his class one day when they were talking about saving the earth," the Daily Beast reported in May. Following a CPS investigation, Fornbacher decided to move to Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal.
This notion of unfit parenting presents another complicating factor in the debate over marijuana, as different states have varying guidelines regarding child abuse and neglect. In North Dakota, for example, where marijuana is still illegal, a child can be considered "deprived" if found in the same room as drug paraphernalia. In Colorado, where marijuana is recreationally legal, on the other hand, pregnant women cannot be prosecuted for reporting their marijuana use to their prenatal health-care provider, or for having a positive drug test during a prenatal care visit. However, if a baby born in Colorado tests positive at birth for a federally classified Schedule I substance, the parents could face charges of child neglect, and risk being reported to social services. This means a parent whose child has been exposed to marijuana is treated just as seriously as one exposed to, say, heroin or LSD.
"While we've had a sort of national rethinking of marijuana laws, it has not filtered down to family court," Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera in September. "It's a simple fix to look at the behavior of the child, of the parent and not what's in their urine."
CPS may be cracking down on pot-smoking parents across the country, but, overall, the United States is gradually liberalizing its views on marijuana. The percentage of Americans who favor legalization has risen from 32 percent in 2006 to 53 percent in 2015. Millennials are at the forefront of legalization, with 68 percent in support, according to the Pew Research Center. Many of those Millennials could be parents; first-time mothers across the country are 26 years old, on average.
Until policies adapt, parents who consume marijuana legally won't be viewed differently than other hard drug users.
Whether marijuana is safe for consumption during pregnancy is still up for debate. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, there's no safe threshold for marijuana use in utero, as THC can pass through the placenta to an unborn child. Some studies also suggest that cannabis use during pregnancy can harm a baby's developing brain, eventually leading to cognitive and neurobehavioral issues. Experts also caution against smoking pot while breastfeeding, as THC can pass from mother to child through breastmilk. The chemical is also stored in fat, a concern for the fatty tissue in the brains and bodies of developing babies.
Scant research exists overall as to how marijuana use alone, particularly medical marijuana, can affect parenting skills, or its correlation to abuse or neglect. The physical effects of marijuana on children are a little more documented, however, and can serve as examples of irresponsible use around children. A 2013 study of children who accidentally ate marijuana edibles, for example, shows that dangerously high doses in small children can cause them to hallucinate, or even render them comatose. A recent study by the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine found that exposure to secondhand smoke in "extreme conditions" like an unventilated room or car, can cause non-smokers to feel a contact high, or, at the least, to test positive for the drug in a urine test. Secondhand marijuana smoke might damage the heart and blood vessels as much as secondhand cigarette smoke also.
Whatever little research is available on marijuana and child abuse is quite dated: According to a 1996 study in Children and Youth Services Review of parental substance abuse and child maltreatment, of the roughly 2.7 million cases of reported child abuse and neglect in the U.S. in 1991, alcohol was the most common factor (used in 77 percent of reported families). Next was marijuana, with 32 percent of families, followed by cocaine (20 percent of families), crack (17 percent), and heroin (four percent). But, crucially, "Cocaine and crack were cited much more often than marijuana as primary illicit drugs of abuse, that is, those creating the most harm for the children or used most frequently," according to the study.
As marijuana continues to become a new normal across the U.S.—and a legalized one at that—is there such a strong difference between responsible drinking and responsible pot smoking? Do we need to continue to distinguish between locking up the liquor cabinet and locking up one's stash, or the occasional glass of wine and the occasional toke?
As Jared Keller wrote in June, studies show that decriminalizing weed doesn't, in fact, result in the long-feared reefer madness. On the contrary, there's been no known increase in marijuana use among teenagers in states where marijuana has been legalized. But when it comes to marijuana use and parenting, the lack of research on the drug's long-term effects on child-rearing is very much reflected across the country's family courts system.
And for some children under investigation from protective services, that disconnect may prove to be far more more negligent than their parents' marijuana use ever was.
Lead Photo: (Photo: Lukas Gojda/Shutterstock)