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By Steven Nelson U.S. News and World Report
About a dozen parents and medical marijuana activists gathered in the nation’s capital Monday to share horror stories and advice on how to shield families from authorities who wield the power to take away their children.
Progressive state marijuana laws are increasingly common in the U.S., but protections for parents who legally use the drug as medicine or administer it to their children are missing, panelists and audience members at the event said.
Roughly half of states currently allow medical marijuana – four of them also allow legal recreational pot use – and a handful more allow use of cannabidiol (CBD), a pot compound thought to have medicinal beneifts that doesn’t produce a high.
Maria and Steve Green of Michigan, where residents approved a medical pot law in 2008, shared the well-reported story of officials taking away their 6-month-old daughter, Bree, in 2013.
Maria Green, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, said an ex-husband's tip got the ball rolling. She said her ex attempted to make medical pot use an issue in a custody dispute over another child but was rebuffed by a judge who said if he truly objected he’d call child protective services.
Steve Green, who uses marijuana to treat seizures, said he and his wife were eager to comply with the child protection worker who inspected their home but were not willing to allow them into a locked room where they were legally growing marijuana for themselves and other patients.
The Greens insisted on a warrant to absolve them for breaking state law requiring restricted access to the grow room. Steve Green said he didn't attend a warrant hearing because he supported one being granted. He said he then received a frantic call from his wife informing him the state amended their request to authorize taking Bree, who was separated from her family for six weeks.
Points of contention among advocates included whether to allow child protective services into homes without warrants and whether to involve the media in cases.
All agreed, however, it was best to meticulously photograph and record all interactions with investigators and vigorously denounced at-school interviews with children while their parents are not present and an apparent habit of child services striking on Fridays.
“It’s like we’re living in a secret world where only we know about this happening,” said a Florida mother attending the panel, held as part of the annual conference of the group Americans for Safe Access.
In addition to the Greens, who won Bree back after aggressive media coverage, similar stories with worse outcomes periodically catch headlines. Texas 2-year-old Alex Hill, for example, was murdered in foster care in 2013. She was taken from her family after her father admitted using pot while she slept.
In California, the first state to set up a medical marijuana program in the 1990s, a couple sued in 2013 after their children were taken for a year because the father, a veteran, allegedly used the drug for medical purposes near them. Another California couple sued, alleging their son was sexually abused in foster care after he was taken from his San Diego home when a raid recovered pot his father says was grown for medicine.
Family Law & Cannabis Alliance co-founder Sara Arnold, a Massachusetts mother and medical pot user, urged parents to clean their homes before allowing child protective services in and advised not agreeing to a drug test without a warrant.
If child services workers show up unannounced, Arnold said, parents should leave the house, explain then wasn’t a good time and offer to set up an appointment. Insisting on a warrant for a visit, she warned, can be “a little bit like kicking a hornet’s nest.”
Despite increasingly progressive state pot laws, Arnold said, “there’s been no corresponding push to address child welfare laws.” She’s written draft language for ballot initiatives that would enhance protections for parents.
In states where “the best interests of the child” takes precedence over keeping families together, people in power can define those best interests as they please and force lengthy court fights that generally feature limited due process, sealed records, closed hearings and in some places no right to appeal, Arnold said.
“You can lose your child forever,” she warned.
Arnold said sealed court records make it difficult to track the issue. She said her general impression is that parents in Texas – where there's no medical marijuana law – should flee, but noted there are issues in Colorado, too, where recreational use is legal.
Renee Petro, whose son Branden suffers from a type of epilepsy, endorsed active defiance of authorities. An anonymous tip led Petro’s local Florida sheriff to inspect her home, she said, after she ordered apparently legal-to-use hemp oil to treat her son.
Petro and others noted refusing to treat children with traditional medicine can cause trouble. An appropriate number of pills must be missing from bottles.
“You cannot fear, you’ve got to fight,” she said, telling of how she hectored the sheriff and worked to gin up media attention. Florida does not yet have a medical marijuana law. A November ballot initiative that would have created one fell short of the 60 percent threshold for a win.
A Pennsylvania mother in the audience reminded others it’s also possible to lose custody of adult children with disabilities. She said she’s set up her voicemail to alert state officials they will be recorded if they leave a message.
Maria Green agreed it was important to record as much as possible, lest parents land in court with their word against a state employee’s. Green said a fellow parent was accused by child services of having a bong in plain view. The parent insists it was actually a glass candle holder, Green said, but could not prove it because the home visit was not recorded.
Though media coverage helped the Greens, Petro and others, Arnold advised careful consideration before taking that route. Some authorities respond poorly to a public spotlight, she said, and “we have seen it horrifically backfire.”
Marijuana use for any reason outside limited research remains a federal crime and the drug’s Schedule I classification under the Controlled Substances Act has slowed research into its medicinal qualities. A major legislative push from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would explicitly legalize state programs and lower pot’s classification.