One of the policy areas in greatest need of reform involves the typical response of our child custody system in this country when they learn that a parent smokes marijuana; in all states today, including those that have legalized marijuana either for medical use or for all adults, the child custody agency stubbornly maintains an unfair bias against parents who smoke marijuana.
I suspect most of us have personally witnessed the disruption to someone’s life that results when, for any of a number of possible reasons, a parent’s marijuana smoking becomes known to the state’s child welfare agency. Sometimes it is because the couple are going through a hostile separation or divorce, and one parent attempts to use the other’s use of marijuana to gain advantage, either to limit that parent’s access to the children or to get a more favorable financial arrangement. Other times it begins with the complaint of a nosy neighbor who claims to have smelled marijuana (or to have seen someone smoking it), and who calls the authorities.
Regardless of the origin of the complaint or the motivation of the complaintant, once the state’s child welfare agency is called into the dispute, a legal process is begun that will all too often be disruptive to the health and welfare of the child, the very opposite of the stated intent of the inquiry. It is also an expensive and heartbreaking experience to a parent or parents who have to hire lawyers and focus their life for months on end jumping through any number of legal hoops to demonstrate that, despite their marijuana smoking, they remain loving parents who provide a safe and healthy environment for their minor children.
To understand this awkward legal squeeze all too many parents find themselves facing, it is important to realize we have parallel legal systems in effect in these states: one deals with what conduct is or is not criminal; the other focuses only on what is in the best interests of the child. And even as we continue to make progress removing the responsible use of marijuana from the criminal code, either for medical use or for all adults, the child custody courts in those same states continue to begin any inquiry with the presumption that marijuana smokers are not fit parents, and marijuana smoking by adults, even when it is protected conduct under that state’s laws, is dangerous to any children and evidence of an unhealthy environment in which to raise a child.
Atlanta, GA – A newly released poll found that over half of Georgia voters support a marijuana legalization policy similar to that of Colorado and Washington (54%), however that same report found that even larger majority supports decriminalization. 62% of respondents believe that the state should remove criminal penalties for possession of less than one ounce of pot, and replace it with a $100 civil fine, without the possibility of jail time. Only 32% were opposed. Interestingly, 56% of seniors, and republicans respectively, were among that nearly two-thirds majority.
The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) was commissioned by state affiliates of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Georgia NORML, and Peachtree NORML. Said Peachtree NORML’s Executive Director Sharon Ravert, “The citizens of Georgia agree, marijuana prohibition is a wasteful and destructive policy. It is time for our state to catch up with public opinion and find a more sensible solution to the status quo.” Peachtree NORML and other advocacy groups are working with lawmakers and various state coalition groups to amend Georgia’s criminal marijuana laws. In 2010, some 32,500 Georgians were arrested for violating marijuana laws, according to the FBI. That is the sixth highest total of any state in America.
Also of note, only 9% of respondents were millennials. This demographic is known to be overwhelmingly supportive of this issue, but their limited representation highlights the fact that there is significant support among other age groups. 71% of those questioned were between the ages of 30 and 65 which suggests that older generations, who are more likely to vote, are also strongly in favor of decriminalization. It’s clear that the widespread support for marijuana law reform in the traditionally conservative state of Georgia has grown to such an extent that it now reaches across all party lines, age groups and races.
“Though it may be surprising to some, these numbers are consistent with a growing trend of support for reform in the southern region of the country,” said Sabrina Fendrick NORML’s Outreach Coordinator for the southeastern region. Recent polls conducted in Louisiana and Oklahoma both show a majority of support (56% and 53% respectively) for a change in the law providing for a $100 fine without jail time for those who possess an ounce or less of marijuana. Said Fendrick, “Everywhere you look you will see more and more people dissatisfied with the strict penalties associated with current marijuana laws, and an ever increasing number of southerners are ready for a sensible alternative to existing failed policies, including decriminalization.”
If there is another human being who has publicly debated more in favor of cannabis law reform, or, spoken to more legal victims of America’s cannabis laws than me, I want to meet and thank them. From these hundreds of debates and thousands of personal encounters with my fellow cannabis consumers busted for ganja, one single phrase that I constantly hear from those who still support cannabis prohibition that instantly pushes my button is: No one gets busted for pot anymore in America…It’s practically legal.
Thankfully, because of the non-stop work from a cast of thousands of citizen-activists, going back over forty years, the latter is somewhat true for about one-third of America’s population. However the former is a bald face lie that must be confronted every time it is uttered by the proponents of pot prohibition.
Even in states where cannabis is supposed to be decriminalized, where states have passed laws making cannabis a ‘minor civil offense’, an encounter with law enforcement regarding one’s cannabis possession or use can have expensive, life-altering and devastating negative effects on a person’s life.
Kudos to BuzzFeed for producing a very well done video profile of a beloved public school teacher in New York City named Alberto Willmore, who, save for this video, would be yet another faceless victim of New York City’s expensive and reckless enforcement of what should be a minor civil offense, like a parking ticket or citation for spitting on the sidewalk. Instead of simply issuing Mr. Willmore a civil fine for possessing a small amount of cannabis, New York City continues to disrespect state laws governing cannabis possession by arresting, detaining, prosecuting and forcing Mr. Willmore to lose his dream job as an art teacher for what law enforcement deem a ‘serious crime’, when the legislature does not–even more so when almost 60% of the US public support legalizing cannabis sales.
NORML has been advocating for almost twenty years in New York City for the city to return to it’s historic cannabis possession arrest rate of under 1,000 per year, down dramatically from the now nearly 40,000 cannabis possession arrests annually in New York City, which exploded under mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg.
Next time you hear a law enforcement representative, opinion maker or politician declare that ‘nobody gets busted for pot any more’, remind them of one of America’s nearly 700,000 annual cannabis arrests: Alberto Willmore
With the recent release by incoming mayor Bill de Blasio’s family of a video from his daughter talking about her use of cannabis, and incoming police commissioner William Bratton’s long experience in effective policing, NORML hopes that 2014 will finally be the year that New York City ceases being the hotbed for cannabis arrests in America and relents on destroying the lives of it’s otherwise productive and appreciated citizens–like Alberto Willmore–who happen to choose to consume cannabis in their home.
It’s no secret that there has been a proliferation government agencies across the country removing minors and infants from their home, based solely on the fact that a parent is a cannabis consumer, and the false presumption that the presence of marijuana poses a danger. This even occurs in states with a legal medical marijuana program, or where marijuana possession is no longer a criminal offense. Some of these experiences can be incredibly traumatic to the child, as well as the parents, as officers have a tendency to use aggressive and sometimes militaristic tactics while engaging with these families.
NORML receives dozens of calls and emails every month from devastated parents who have lost custody of their children to state agencies, and we remain committed to providing support and resources to those forced into these unfortunate circumstances. In light of such efforts, we are pleased to announce that NORML has recently partnered with the newly formed Family Law and Cannabis Alliance (FLCA), founded by longtime drug reform activists Jess Cochrane and Sara Arnold. The FLCA is an informational clearinghouse that provides educational resources, advocacy information and legal referrals geared toward reformers & affected families on the crossover of marijuana laws & the child protection system.
Sabrina Fendrick, Director of Women’s Outreach said, she is “looking forward to working with the Family Law and Cannabis Alliance to raise awareness about the devastating effects, and sometimes dangerous practice, of child services in removing children from their safe and loving homes for the mere fact a parent is a cannabis consumer. It is time to end this destructive policy, and put an end to marijuana prohibition once and for all.”
Click here for more information on the Family Law and Cannabis Alliance.
[UPDATE: October 30, the family of the young man entrapped by police in this case have filed a lawsuit. Read more here.]
In late 2012, a Riverside County, California police officer infiltrated a local high school, befriended a vulnerable, special needs student and then proceeded to send more than 60 text messages begging the student to buy him weed. The student, who had been diagnosed with autism as well as bipolar disorder, Tourettes, and several anxiety disorders (and noticeably handicapped) became overwhelmed by the pressure, and the desire to keep his only friend. He finally agreed to buy pot for “Dan” (the undercover cop). It took the teenager weeks to find anything, eventually buying half of a joint from from a homeless man downtown.
Then, as reported by Reason Magazine, “On December 11, 2012 armed police officers walked into [the student’s] classroom and arrested him in front of his peers. He was taken to the juvenile detention center, along with the 21 other arrestees, where he was kept for 48 hours. First hand reports claim that the juvenile center was caught off guard by the large number of arrests and that some youths had to sleep on the floor, using toilet paper as pillows.” The child was also expelled from school.
This story is a grotesque example of how our nation’s marijuana policies continue to encourage the use of barbaric and predatory tactics by law enforcement officials. They are financially incentivised to not only target otherwise law abiding citizens, but actively work to manipulate innocent children. Aside from the gross misappropriation of limited police resources, this incident clearly highlights many of the tragic implications marijuana prohibition continues to have on our nation’s youth. Further, zero tolerance policies in schools have proven to be ineffective in the very purpose for which they were originally designed. The practice of engaging in high school undercover drug stings has proven to do nothing to curb teen drug use. It does however, leave the student body traumatized and resentful of law enforcement, making them less likely to report legitimate crimes in the future. It is an egregiously unfair and punitive practice by educational institutions to expel students as punishment for any infraction of a rule, a significant portion of which are for non-violent low level drug violations. How does removing a minor from what is intended to be a stable, nurturing environment do anything to help prepare these individuals to lead responsible productive lives? They are now forced to sit at home with nothing to do but hang out with other expelled peers, or in a juvenile detention center.
One can argue that this all leads back to the financial incentives driving police officers to arrest as many individuals on drug charges as possible. Every year, law enforcement jurisdictions are given federal grants, swat gear, overtime pay and assets based solely on their number of drug arrests. Perhaps it is a result of former Governor Schwarzenegger’s passage of SB 1449 in 2010, which reduced the crime of possession of an ounce of pot from a misdemeanor to an infraction for adults 18 and over. Now, the only way to keep up their arrest rates is by targeting minors – whose charges remain misdemeanors. It is time to stop the madness and put an end to these insane zero-tolerance policies. Our children’s future depends on it.
**The family of the student framed by an undercover officer have set up a fundraiser to support their lawsuit against the school district. Click here for more information.