Parents find themselves at the whim of ever-changing policy despite expanding cultural, medical, and legal comfortability with cannabis. This pulls families into a battle zone where the failed war on drugs plays out with disastrous consequences. Not every “CannaMommy” is able to enjoy a free, just consumer and citizen experience while choosing to partake in cannabis consumption or administration.

It’s time to take a deeper look at some of the legal implications of the current cannabis environment for parents and their families.

Parents of pediatric medical cannabis patients often face stigma, lack of access, and even criminal charges — all for trying to take care of their children. Despite expanding legalization, the failed war on drugs continues to harm families of color disproportionately.

Cannabis consumption is still used in court as a key factor in custody decisions, even for medical cannabis patients. Moreover, the looming threat of the Roe v. Wade reversal creates an alarming backdrop for cannabis-related reproductive injustices, even in states with legal cannabis.

Parents Criminalized for Giving Medical Cannabis to Kids

Parents of epileptic children have limited access to information and treatment options because of prohibition-based restrictions on medical cannabis research due to its federally illegal status. Even as legal restrictions on cannabis research are slowly lifted through legislative reform, parents caring for children with intractable conditions continue to wait for medical research that will only become possible after federal legalization.

For parents of children with these and other health conditions that do not respond to conventional treatment, access to cannabis can be enough of a reason for parents to relocate families to states with medical access.

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Despite expanding access, parents and families have faced severe repercussions for giving medical cannabis to their children, even within legal state medical programs. The state of Georgia threatened parents with prison time for giving cannabis to their 15-year-old child with severe epileptic seizures.

Recently, Oklahoma authorities removed a disabled 9-year-old from her family for three days under suspicion of medical neglect, even though she had been seizure-free for over one year as a cardholding patient in the state’s medical cannabis program. A judge dismissed the case days later, but the traumatic impact lingers. Families who are doing everything right within the law to take care of their children find themselves choosing between parenting or persecution.

The War on Drugs Locks Up Parents and Fails Families

When cannabis incarceration comes to mind, so should parents. In 2016, 47% of people serving time in state prisons and 57% in federal prisons were parents of minor children. More than 5 million children in the U.S. — or about 7% — have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Compared with their white peers, Black and Latino children are respectively over seven and two times more likely to have a parent incarcerated, perpetuating a generational cycle of harm that is immeasurable in impact.

The war on drugs created an alternate system of justice within civil child neglect cases that disproportionately affected people of color. In this system, people who had been caught with small amounts of cannabis or simply admitted to it have been subject to civil child neglect cases, even with no criminal charges. Even in states with medical and adult-use legalization, cannabis use is still being considered by the court to be a negative factor in parenting time and custody decisions.

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Research indicates a connection between legalization and reduced foster-care placements. University of Mississippi economics researchers found that foster-care placements dropped by at least 10% in states following legalization, and their analysis of the results appears to show causation. While the exact mechanism of this correlation is not fully known, the data showed fewer admissions to foster care for reasons of parental drug and alcohol abuse, physical abuse, neglect, and parental incarceration. The substitution of cannabis in exchange for other substances is thought to be an important component of the trend.

Reproductive Justice and Cannabis Laws

Another lasting imprint of prohibition on parenthood is the lack of medical and scientific research about cannabis in pregnancy, which is especially startling considering the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) estimates the self-reported prevalence of cannabis use during pregnancy to range between 2% to 5% in most studies.

ACOG recommends against the use of cannabis in pregnancy and breastfeeding due to a lack of pregnancy-specific safety data, but the college also opposes any policies or practices that seek to criminalize individuals for conduct alleged to be harmful to their pregnancy, including drug use. Nevertheless, pregnant medical cannabis patients face criminalization and removal of parental rights, as with the case of an Arizona medical cannabis patient who was charged with child neglect for using cannabis to treat hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition that causes severe nausea and vomiting in pregnancy.

States criminalize people who use cannabis while pregnant, and states use medical cannabis laws as a forum to police bodily autonomy. For example, Alabama senators recently approved an invasive bill in committee to require girls and women of “childbearing age” to show proof that they’re not pregnant in order to buy medical cannabis products from dispensaries. Under the bill, doctors would be forbidden to issue a medical cannabis recommendation for girls and women between ages 13 and 50 without a negative pregnancy test.

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Ending the Stigma for Parents and Families

Slick branding and cannabis lifestyle “mommy” photoshoots elide the grim reality faced by everyday families. Medical decision-making for parents of severely ill children is complex and heart-wrenching enough, and the ongoing threat of criminalization is an obscene burden placed on the most vulnerable families. With parents behind bars and children removed from homes, there is still much work to be done in normalizing cannabis for families. Parents, children, families, and communities most adversely impacted by prohibition must be prioritized.