In mainstream conversations about families and drugs, parents are tasked with protecting their children from the evils of drug abuse. However, this narrative drastically oversimplifies the many ways in which families experience drugs and drug use, glossing over the serious problems caused by drug war policies themselves.
Even otherwise positive drug policy reforms frequently overlook parents and families, perpetuating the harms done by the War on Drugs.
This issue of the Monthly Mosaic will touch on a few of the ways families are impacted by drug policy.
Medical Cannabis & Child Custody
A total of 25 states, the District of Columbia and Guam currently have medical marijuana or recreational cannabis legislation, and an additional 17 states allow the use of “low THC, high cannabidiol (CBD)” products for medical reasons in limited situations or as a legal defense. While these advances are certainly admirable, families have been left behind. Even though the majority of the country has now legalized cannabinoid ingestion in some form, parents—even those in legal compliance—continue to be threatened with losing custody of their children, or worse.
In June 2015, police entered San Diego medical cannabis patient Micah Wojnowski’s home with guns drawn, based on a tip from a confidential informant. Accused of manufacturing concentrated cannabis and felony child endangerment charges, Micah was dragged into court.
“San Diego police officers stormed past medical cannabis patient Micah Wojnowski’s organic vegetable farm in Golden Hill and into the home he shared with his teenage son and a couple of roommates. The police entered the urban home with guns drawn on a tip from a confidential informant. They did not find what they were looking for but decided not to accept defeat. Instead they searched Micah’s house and garage, and set a stage to paint Micah as a child abuser because he is a medical cannabis patient, an industry expert and a parent.”
Although Micah was thankfully found not guilty, his experience is unfortunately not unique.
Shona Banda, author of the 2010 book Live Free or Die, which makes the case for medical marijuana, found out first hand how speaking out against drug laws can endanger a family. Shona, who has developed her own cannabis oil extraction method to treat her Crohn’s disease, lives in Kansas, which has some of the more backwards cannabis laws in the nation.
“It started in March 2015 when Shona’s 11-year-old son was attending a ‘drug education program’ [at school]…After making a comment relating to Shona’s medical cannabis use for Crohn’s disease, school officials called The Department of Children and Families and the Garden City police. Authorities proceeded to interview Shona’s son without her permission. Using this information, which was possibly gained illegally, they raided Shona’s home while she was not there and found cannabis. In June, Shona was charged with various drug and child endangerment crimes, whereupon she turned herself into authorities. Even more devastatingly, Shona’s son was taken away by the state when they opened a Child in Need of Care (CINC) case.”
Shona and Micah represent just a few of many parents who have faced the risk of being labeled child abusers and losing custody of their kids for using cannabis for medical purposes.
Cannabis legislation and ballot initiatives offer weak parent-protective provisions, or none at all, which allows CPS to continue to take action against parents who use cannabis legally. However, organizations like the Family Law and Cannabis Alliance are fighting back with model language for ballot initiatives and other legislation that liberalize cannabis laws while providing protection for families.
Pregnant people—who are frequently policed for what they put into their bodies— are uniquely vulnerable to criminal justice involvement. Women of color are particularly at risk: even though black women are no more likely than white women to use illicit drugs during pregnancy, they are ten times as likely to be reported to child welfare services for drug use.
Children are routinely separated from their imprisoned mothers, causing irreparable damage to the child.
“The impact of removing a child, particularly a newborn, from its mother can be devastating… ‘Children suffer enormously from needless removal from their parents.’”
— Lila Seidman, Smoking Weed While Pregnant Can Land you in Prison
In Alabama, using drugs while pregnant is considered “chemical endangerment.” It’s a felony crime that has mothers facing up to 20 years in prison, potentially leaving their children effectively without a mother.
Involuntary or coerced treatment is another common sanction for those who use drugs during pregnancy, even though studies suggest that mandatory treatment is not a good predictor of positive treatment outcomes.
In Wisconsin, for example. pregnant people can be involuntarily committed to “treatment” for “habitually [lacking] self-control” in use of substances—even if they do not have a substance abuse problem. One woman, Tamara Loertscher, quit using meth and marijuana after she found out she was pregnant, only to be put in jail after refusing drug treatment on the grounds that she wasn’t actually using any drugs.
“[Tamara Loertscher] was…brought to court and twice refused lawyers (even though her fetus was given one), and then sent to jail for 17 days, where she was placed in solitary confinement, denied prenatal care even as she began cramping, and not given her thyroid medication for two days…Loertscher refused to submit to in-patient treatment because, she said, she was not an addict and had stopped using drugs. She was then jailed for contempt of court. She was released from jail after agreeing to submit to regular tests, which…have repeatedly shown that she is clean. Nonetheless, the state of Wisconsin then informed her that it considered her a child abuser, which will prevent Loertscher from ever working again in her profession, as a certified nurse’s aide….It could even prevent the soon-to-be mom from one day volunteering at her son’s school.”
Pregnant women who are incarcerated for drug law violations often do not receive prenatal care. The prosecution of prenatal drug use by individual mothers and the drug testing of pregnant women can also work together to dissuade women from seeking prenatal health care for fear of prosecution or losing custody of their children.
To make matters worse, prisons and jails commonly use restraints (handcuffs and shackles) on women in labor and during delivery, regardless of their histories. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, shackled birth interferes with normal labor and delivery, prevents or inhibits crucial mother-child bonding, and puts the health of the woman and fetus at risk.
“The same failed tactics used to fight drugs continue to be used to retain control over women’s reproduction. Drug laws are increasingly being implemented on the state level as a roundabout method to limit women’s bodily autonomy and carry out anti-choice agendas.”
— Annaick Miller, Using the “War on Drugs” to Arrest Pregnant Women
Over 5 million American children have experienced the incarceration of a parent. In Kentucky—the worst in the nation, a full 13% of children have had a parent incarcerated at some point during their lives. Children from low-income families of color are the worst impacted with African-American and Latino children over seven and two times more likely, respectively, to have a parent incarcerated. The problem is getting worse with the number of incarcerated fathers and mothers increasing by 76% and 122% respectively between 1991 and 2007.
Fifty percent of those in federal prison and 16% of those in state prisons are serving time for drug offenses. The numbers are particularly stark when it comes to women (one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. prison population). Two-thirds of women in federal prison are there for nonviolent drug offenses. Three quarters are mothers—many of them sole caregivers.
Not only are these parents unable to interact with their children in a normal way but, since the majority of parents in state and federal prisons are incarcerated over 100 miles away from their last residence, visits can be incredibly difficult. Federal policies prohibit people convicted of felony drug crimes from receiving food stamps or welfare benefits, which can also pose a significant challenge to formerly incarcerated parents trying to get back on their feet.
Drug awareness and harm reduction advocate Dede Goldsmith is one such empowered parent who believes ending the War on Drugs will make the world safer for children.
Dede launched the Amend the RAVE Act (ATRA) campaign on the one-year anniversary of her daughter, Shelley’s, death. Shelley Goldsmith, a 20-year-old honors student at UVA, died in August 2013 of hyperthermia that led to cardiac arrest after taking MDMA and attending an EDM concert in DC. Goldsmith believes that her daughter might be alive today if drug policy did not punish concert venues for providing basic harm reduction measures for drug-using concert-goers.
“The electronic-music venues where the drug abounds rarely offer amenities like free water or cool-down rooms that could help keep partygoers from overheating. ‘What the hell, why are these places not protecting their patrons?’ Goldsmith remembers thinking. She found the answer in a 2003 law introduced by then-Sen. Joe Biden that bars individuals and businesses from ‘knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place’ where drugs are distributed or used. Violators can be slapped with fines of up to $250,000 and prison sentences of up to 20 years.”
— Mariah Blake, This Law Made It a Lot More Dangerous to Take Ecstasy
Families for Sensible Drug Policy seeks to empower families and reduce the harmful consequences of oppressive drug policies by increasing access to effective substance use disorder treatment, bringing reality-based drug education to schools, and educating families about how to prevent overdoses.
Do an SSDP DARE (and get 10 points on the SSDP Chapter Activity Tracker)!
- Start a conversation with your own family about the war on drugs. Tell your Outreach Director about the outcomes.
- Have a discussion with your chapter about ways in which families can be hurt by various drug policy reform measures. Take a look at model language and see how laws in your area compare. What can you and your chapter do to make sure families aren’t being discriminated against?
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Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous issues have covered topics such as domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war.
The DARE committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues.