And more: California Doctors' Group endorses marijuana legalization.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
NY parents pass drug tests, still lose custody of children due to illogical cannabis prosecutions
It’s tough to be poor and minority in America these days. It’s harder to vote, harder to get healthcare, harder to get credit, harder to get to work on public transportation, harder to get an education--and now, it’s harder to be a parent. If you live in New York and are poor, you don’t even have to commit a crime or show evidence of neglect to have your children taken away from you. That’s what happened to Penelope Harris when police found 10 grams of marijuana (about a third of an ounce) while searching her Bronx apartment. She contended the marijuana belonged to her boyfriend. The amount was also below the legal limit for even a misdemeanor prosecution. And yet, on the basis of this find alone, child welfare authorities took her son and her niece, who was living with her as a foster child, and placed them in foster care on neglect charges, her niece not returned to her home for more than a year. Ms. Harris, who had no prior criminal record, was forced to weather a lengthy neglect investigation as well as a drug test, both of which exonerated her.
David Simon, the genius creator of the TV series The Wire, calls the War on Drugs “the war on the underclass.” And nowhere has this war been taken to new heights of cruelty and absurdity in the recent cases in New York. Neglect charges have been brought against parents based on sub-prosecutable amounts of marijuana found in the home, or even, more ridiculously, on admitted past use. Some parents have even lost custody of their children. Recreational marijuana use is something that is de facto if not de jure decriminalized for the vast majority of Americans, but New York is ripping children out of the arms of poor parents capriciously and with impunity, not only breaking up families but ruining job prospects (should these neglect charges stick, the parent may be barred from occupations that involve contact with children).
In New York state, marijuana has been effectively decriminalized. To be caught possessing up to 25 grams results in a citation, similar to a traffic ticket. But a recent article in The New York Times explored a current practice of welfare agencies taking children away from parents on the basis of these non-prosecutable amounts of. For this, prosecutors have marshalled the power (and expense) of the courts in a large-net sweep, breaking up families and putting the burden on them to prove they are not unfit parents. But not only did the court system run rampant on poor parents, who had little legal power or connections, but also, tellingly, "these cases were rarely if ever filed against white parents."
This Reefer Madness all over again, revamped and reshaped into a cudgel with which to torment the minority poor. The original 1936 film was a melodramatic-campy fantasy of the dangers of marijuana, implying it drove the most timid of smokers to rape, hallucinations, homicide, nyphomania, and suicide (a particularly funny scene also suggests cannabis may cause bad piano-playing), to help set the cultural atmosphere needed for marijuana’s prohibition in 1937. A powerful countermand was necessary to reverse the accurate perception of cannabis, which had, prior to its criminalization, had been listed in the official U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), the official public standards-setting authority for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, as a useful, relatively safe and effective analgesic and anti-depressive.
Not even a year after its criminalization, a scientific panel commissioned by, ironically, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, promptly recommended re-legalization. In 1988, DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young restated that cannabis is "the safest therapeutically active substance known to man." Toxicologists agree that cannabis has almost no lethal dose, making it safer than quotidian household substances such as alcohol, caffeine, even water.
Perhaps this could only happen in America, where large swaths of the population can be convinced to shun perfectly obvious evidence from scientists, be it global climate change, evolution, or cannabis, in favor of an absurdist, politically-charged view, if that view is promulgated long enough and with enough conviction and/or effectively uses fear to trump logic. The way racism and xenophobia were exploited to push through the 1936 decision (marijuana being associated both with illegal Mexican immigration and black jazz musicisns) this harmless plant has once again taken on the mantle of “demon weed,” a synecdoche for insinuations of negligent parenting among the minority underclass--simply for being poor and minority.
The new-old interpretation being used is against these parents is the “gateway drug theory,” a particularly cynical trope when considering that it was used to almost comical effect during the McCarthy era by suggesting that marijuana caused communism (marijuana leads to heroin, which comes from opium, which comes from communist China, etc.—that is, if one wants to willfully forget that China’s opium was forced upon it by the British, during the Opium Wars). Numerous scientific studies have not only debunked this myth, but Harry Anslinger, the anti-cannabis zealot largely responsible for the prohibition of cannabis in 1936, later had to admit in front of Congress that the “gateway drug” theory was false. Yet, decades later, here is Michael Fagan, of the Administration for Children’s Services, stating in the Times that “We find that admitted marijuana use masks other substance abuse” a statement made with no scientific backing, even with 2006 University of Pittsburgh study suggesting the opposite is true. In fact, lawyers for the accused families point out that investigators brought the negligence cases first, then only retroactively searched for other drug use. In the Harris case, where the mother had two children removed from her home, drug tests showed she wasn’t using any drugs, marijuana or otherwise.
Because marijuana is still a controlled substance in this country, little scientific research has been done on its effects on family life. However, consider that a high-profile report this year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, which urged ending the war on drugs, particularly the criminalization of marijuana. We have the examples of highly developed countries, such as the Netherlands, where social and legal acceptance of its recreational and medicinal use does not seem to have resulted in troves of criminally neglected children. Even Mexico, a country we associate with drug violence, in 2009 decriminalized marijuana and cocaine, and so far the tsunami of child neglect has not materialized.
While New York prosecutors may believe that marijuana is somehow antithetical to a healthy family, in California, suburban mothers were a major constituency pushing for recreational legalization in the most recent elections. Certainly no one considers moderate enjoyment of other psychoactive drugs such as alcohol or coffee to be grounds for charging parent negligence, and yet these substances on a toxicology level are much more dangerous to children than cannabis.
Our country has become an odd amalgam of a Puritan past that casts suspicion upon anything that gives pleasure, while its capitalistic nature encourages the rich to enjoy their spoils. In this quasi-theology, poor people are sinners and should therefore be denied any pleasure in their life (a recent Fox News report disparaged the poor in America as not even being really poor, as many enjoyed “amenities” such as refrigerators); for the wealthy, being rich and successful is a virtue in itself, and anything they do is wonderful, the same way poor minority shoplifters go to jail for stealing infant formula while the upperclass rich are thought of with amusement if not fondness for their “kleptomania.” Even more unfairly, while whites in New York City use marijuana at roughly twice the rate of Hispanics and blacks, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Hispanics are arrested for marijuana possession at 3.5 times the rate of whites, 7.8 times for blacks.
If the New York agencies believe cannabis to be such a clear and identifiable danger to children, we await the dragnets in affluent areas. Perhaps a suburban man who installs a wet bar in his rec room also needs to have his children taken away from him by child welfare authorities, as abuse of alcohol has been found to be highly correlated to child abuse and neglect by numerous studies. Further, all of the last three American presidents--all parents—could have been under suspicion by New York standards, having admitted to past marijuana use.
At a time of strapped state budgets, as citizens we need to ask ourselves what is the cost of prosecuting these marijuana cases that are not criminal to begin with, but even more importantly, we need to ask ourselves what is the cost to society in needlessly subjecting children to the trauma of removal from their homes, the taint of presumed guilt on their parents, the time and money and psychic damage borne by these parents who need to prove their innocence? With the stresses and strains on today’s poor and minority families seemingly multiplying every day, it’s madness to tear families apart based upon another cannabis fiction.
And more: California Doctors' Group endorses marijuana legalization.