Marijuana legalization and decriminalization is supposed to protect people and families from the pervasive and far-reaching consequences of prohibition. But across the United States, instances of children being separated from their parents due to drugs have increased 250 percent over the last twenty years. Even in places where marijuana is decriminalized or legal for medical or recreational use, the mere possession of cannabis by a parent can be enough to trigger child welfare investigations that lead to separating families. But last week, New York City Council passed two important marijuana resolutions that will provide relief for parents and mothers who possess or use cannabis.
One resolution prevents the Administration for Children’s Services from removing kids from their parents simply because a parent possesses or uses cannabis. The other protects pregnant mothers’ rights against nonconsensual drug testing. Both pieces of legislation are part of a raft of bills and resolutions introduced by City Council’s Progressive Caucus and the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus.
Breaking the Equation Between Cannabis Use and Harm
It was back in April when members of New York City Council began hearings on how marijuana use and possession can trigger investigations of child abuse. According to parents and advocates, these investigations often result from testing pregnant women and their newborn children at the city’s public hospitals.
And according to the data, it is almost exclusively low-income families of color that NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) end up investigating, despite the fact that white pregnant people and their children screened for drugs are more likely than parents of color to test positive for drug exposure. “We are absolutely tearing families apart, needlessly,” said Queens Councilwoman Adrienne Adams, who described child abuse investigations for marijuana a “systemic criminalization of women of color.“
The knockdown effects of these investigations are severe, according to parents and public defenders who described them during sworn testimony. Such investigations require parents to attend drug treatment programs, even when they repeatedly test negative for cannabis. Marijuana use can also prevent parents from reuniting with their children. And the demanding schedule of treatment programs and constant testing can hinder parents’ abilities to maintain employment, pursue an eduction and spend time raising their kids.
The two resolutions City Council approved last week, however, will dramatically reduce the number of mothers and parents who get caught up in child abuse investigations over marijuana. And both stem from a growing acknowledgement that, in the words of an ACS spokesperson, “the use of cannabis in and of itself does not equate with risk of harm.”
New Resolutions Aim to Keep Families Together
Taken together, the two resolutions City Council passed last week will help ensure cannabis is no longer an excuse for separating children from their parents. And they both address highly problematic drug testing and child welfare policies. Resolution 740 compels New York City’s ACS to drop its policy of labeling marijuana possession by parents as a “risk of harm” that could lead to ACS taking a child into protective custody.
Resolution 746 establishes much clearer consent rules and policies for hospitals who drug test mothers who are pregnant or giving birth. Previously, testing positive for cannabis at a hospital required healthcare providers to file a report with the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, triggering a child abuse investigation. Even if a mother simply disclosed to her doctor that she consumed cannabis during pregnancy, say to relieve nausea or other symptoms, a child welfare case was automatically opened.
Going forward, however, hospitals will have to provide much clearer information to mothers about their rights before any drug testing occurs. Thus, the resolution makes it easier for mothers to discuss their cannabis consumption with health professionals without fear of losing their children.