The role of cannabis in a responsible parent's life has unearthed some uneasy questions that many people find uncomfortable, and too often the knee-jerk reaction to discovering that a parent either responsibly consumes recreational cannabis or relies on medical marijuana is that he or she is an unfit parent and role model to raise children. It's a dangerous response that has ruined countless lives and torn families apart over the course of the War on Drugs, and despite the U.S.'s increasingly softened stance on cannabis, many families are having their children removed from their care over simple possession charges, medical marijuana loopholes, and even for voicing pro-cannabis opinions.
Not in Kansas Any More
Take a recent case from Kansas as an example of how an informed child is punished for standing up for medical marijuana patients' rights. An 11 year-old boy was in class listening to a lecture on drug education. Having lived in Colorado and been exposed to the responsible, educational side of cannabis, he disagreed with many of the anti-cannabis arguments put forth by the teacher, making points about marijuana being used medicinally. He would know – his mom, Shona Banda, was a cannabis oil activist who had successfully treated her Crohn’s Disease with the product.
After his comments during the drug education class, the boy was pulled out of school at 1:40 pm and interrogated for over an hour without parental consent, notification, or presence (all of which conflicts with ethical policies regarding legally interviewing minors). By 6 pm, based on the child’s statements in class, the police had obtained a warrant for his parents' home. The Kansas police searched the home and found two ounces of cannabis oil, as well as paraphernalia.
Banda's son was taken into custody by Kansas authorities and will continue to remain in protective custody for the time being while Banda is facing five criminal charges, including distribution, possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of school property, unlawful manufacture of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and endangering a child. The last charge is the most disturbing one, as Banda not only took measures to keep her medicine out of the hands of her son, but also educated him about the "controlled substance" in question, making sure that he was well-informed about proper adult use.
Arrested Instead of Protected
Next, let's take a look at the case of Max Lorincz in Michigan. His family had a medical emergency last September, so he did what any responsible parent and family man would do: he called 911. The sheriff who responded to the emergency noticed a smear of butane hash oil in the house and arrested Lorincz.
Max Lorincz has since lost custody of his 5 year-old son and is facing felony charges, despite the fact that he’s a medical marijuana patient in the state of Michigan. Due to a change in Michigan state police lab policy, cannabis extracts are not considered “usable marijuana,” so he does not qualify for patient protection under the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act. Lorincz has been charged with the possession of a Schedule 1, controlled, synthetic substance that has no medical use.
At the behest of the courts, Lorincz has abstained from using cannabis (his medicine) and has been forced to go back onto debilitating painkillers while he fights to regain custody of his little boy.
Trusting a Stranger with Your Children
Protective custody sounds safe for children, doesn’t it? What about when it turns deadly?
A family in Texas is still in mourning after a horrendous and terrifying turn of events put a much-needed critical spotlight on Child Protective Services. Joshua Hill and his wife, Mary Sweeny, lived with their two year-old daughter, Alexandria. After they put their girl down to sleep in the evenings, Joshua and Mary would occasionally smoke cannabis to relax and unwind.
When they were caught with cannabis, they were deemed “unfit parents” and Alexandria was removed from them by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, with only occasional supervised visits with her parents. While Alex was in “protective” custody in a foster home, unbeknownst to her parents, she was sharing a space with a volatile caretaker, Sherill Small, along with her boyfriend, a known recovering crack addict During her time in the Small household, Alex began showing up with bruises to her supervised parental visits.
In July of 2013, Joshua Hill received the heart-stopping phone call that no parent ever wants to receive: Your child is in the hospital on life support.
Alexandria Hill died two days later from blunt force trauma to the head inflicted by Small, who later admitted to swinging the child over her head several times before the little girl’s head hit the floor with “a lot of force.”
This little girl did not need to die. Not only is the incident devastating, but it represents a clear failure of the institutionalized system we have in place to protect the children of our country.
How Do We Fix This?
The children in the above examples, and from countless other incidents across the country, should not be removed from caring, loving home environments, nor should their parents be deemed unfit solely due to their cannabis use. We need to change our national and state policies to reflect that a person can use cannabis and still be a responsible adult and a caring parent. This can only happen if we change the narrative surrounding cannabis and get people to understand the following about it:
- Normal, everyday, responsible people use cannabis and still function fine. You don't look at a parent enjoying a beer or a glass of wine and automatically think he or she is unfit to raise children. People can recreationally enjoy alcohol in moderation while still being a good parent and role model for their kids. The same applies to cannabis — some people use it recreationally, while others rely on it for medicinal purposes, but not all of these people are abusing the plant and ignoring their children just so they can get high.
- We should talk to children about cannabis and inform them instead of hiding or ignoring the issue. Gun safety, stranger danger, alcohol use, busy streets — there's a wide range of topics that parents address with their children to educate them on what's dangerous vs. what's safe and what's intended for responsible adults vs. what they're allowed to experience. Cannabis should be added to that list of conversations to have. And don't forget to keep your product locked in a safe place away from small hands (just as you would with medication) — responsible use extends to responsible storage away from minors.
- The government needs to stop treating cannabis users as criminals. Yes, cannabis is still a divisive issue in this country, but the government is operating in a strict "one size fits all" approach when it comes to responsible cannabis users. We're not all scary criminals who are trafficking and distributing large quantities of drugs, yet too often we're treated like a huge threat that needs to be dealt with in the most severe manner possible. How about fines and parenting classes on a case-by-case basis instead of a knee-jerk "jail time and foster care"?
- The U.S. as a whole needs better cannabis education. From law enforcement officials to Child Protective Services to teachers to nosy neighbors, our country has a long ways to go in educating people about cannabis and dissolving the stigmas that persist. The more people realize that you're not automatically a criminal or a burnout or an unfit parent if you partake in some cannabis every now and then, the less likely we'll see incidents where everyday folks are imprisoned or have their children taking away from them for simple possession charges.
This issue is a heartbreaking one, but we can work together to minimize (and hopefully eventually eliminate) cases where responsible parents are being punished for their cannabis use. It'll take time, persistence, education, and some much-needed legal reform, but we can get there eventually and keep families together.