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article imageOp-Ed: Marijuana busts tear families apart

By Abigail Prendergast     Aug 24, 2011 in Lifestyle
In New York City, child protective services is pursuing several cases involved alleged neglect from parents who have possessed minor amounts of marijuana. So minor in fact, that it's technically not even illegal to have it.
Up in the northernmost New York City borough - the Bronx - Penelope Harris was caught with 10 grams of cannabis. Legally such an amount was not enough to charge her even for a misdemeanor, but the 31-year-old mother and aunt was faced with an even more heart-wrenching legal battle: getting custody of her son and niece back.
When Harris was briefly in custody, authorities reported her arrest to New York's child welfare hotline. City case workers subsequently arrived to remove the children from the young mother's apartment says the New York Times.
Harris' then-10-year-old son spent over a week in the foster care system where as her niece - aged 8 - was in another home for upwards of a year. The young girl was already a foster child being cared for by Ms. Harris at the time. A lengthy child neglect inquiry ensued despite the fact that the mother had neither been investigated by child protective services previously nor had any criminal record said her lawyer.
“I felt like less of a parent, like I had failed my children,” Harris stated. “It tore me up.”
This case is just one of many of the like involving several hundred New Yorkers. In recent years, people who have been caught with minor amounts of marijuana - or have merely confessed to using it - became unwilling participants in civil child neglect cases. According to city records and defense lawyers, however, these parents were not facing any criminal charges whatsoever. Some parents have even lost custody of their children as a result.
The Administration for Children's Services - New York's child welfare agency - claimed it was getting involved with such cases for the "appropriate reasons," saying that parents' marijuana use could hint at "other serious problems in the way they cared for their children."
While states and localities across the nation are loosening the penal grip on both medicinal and recreational marijuana usage, there is the apparent issue of how to deal with its being in homes where children reside. In California, child welfare officials are now required to prove that kids are being harmed directly from use of the substance in order to warrant neglect case. There have been less cases brought about as a result of this tactic according to defense lawyers in that state.
New York, however, is not by any means seeing such maneuvers and parents involved in these cases see child welfare agencies essentially acting as their own justice system. These officials have tagged cannabis and its use with a negative stigma and impose legal standards even more so than criminal court, or perhaps to some caliber, society in general.
Lawyers from three legal services groups hired by the city to act in the parents' defense, said they saw hundreds of cases involving use of marijuana, mainly for recreation, in interviews. According to these attorneys, they had over a dozen cases on their dockets which involve parents whose children were placed into the foster care system due to allegations of marijuana use despite never being accused of neglect before.
Lauren Shapiro, director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, said that over 90 percent of neglect cases her lawyers handle where drug use is suspected involve marijuana as opposed to other, harder drugs.
“There is not the same use of crack cocaine as there used to be, so they are filing these cases instead,” said Shapiro.
In New York City, 730,000 people or 12 percent of those aged 12 and older use cannabis at least once a year making it the most common illicit drug there according to city health data. Also despite the fact that marijuana usage is twice as prominent among whites as among black and Hispanic residents according to statistics, the defense lawyers say that the cases regarding use of the substance are "rarely if ever filed against white parents."
ACS spokesman Michael Fagan told the Times that the defense lawyers were overly simplifying the cases. “Drug use itself is not child abuse or neglect, but it can put children in danger of neglect or abuse,” he said. “We think the argument that use of cocaine, heroin or marijuana by a parent of young children should not be looked into or should simply be ignored is just plain wrong.”
Fagan also said that most of the neglect cases will involve scenarios such as children missing school or being left alone and unattended.
“In other times, we find that admitted marijuana use masks other substance abuse,” he added. The defense lawyers for the parents, however, argued that while the initial charges of neglect were based only on recreational usage of cannabis, the agency then went on a proverbial scavenger hunt to find other signs of it to find more grounds in order to reinforce their cases.
Apparently smoking a little pot to relax makes you a bad parent. Are alcoholics good parents because their "drug" of choice just so happens to be legal? What's more is that while police officers cannot invade your home without warrant obtained though grounds of probable cause without conjuring upheaval and cries afoul about the fourth amendment; it's somehow all right for child protective services to do just that. Even if no law has been broken.
So-called "family services" to most serve a purpose all right: they utilize a gross abuse of power and more often than not are a demise to even the most tight-knit of family dynamics. According to a blog called Fairfax CPS, officials from these agencies can make their moves based on anonymous phone calls without investigating whether they have any merit.
Welfare agencies can interrogate children without the slightest of warning and their workers can even go as far as to perform strip searches on them, with the parents' legal ability to oppose such measures growing increasingly gray.
Parents who smoke marijuana even if not in front of their children seem to be the latest target of organizations such as ACS. According to NORML - a website dedicated to marijuana law reform - possessing 10 grams of the substance is deemed civil citation and only warrants a $100 fine for the first offense by New York state law.
Much steeper penalties have been given for copyright infringement.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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