Drug War

New York City: Where Smoking Pot Can Cost You $100—and Your Kids

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I missed this story a couple of weeks ago, but I don't think it's been mentioned here yet: The New York Times reports that New York City's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) investigates hundreds of parents for neglect every year because they are caught with marijuana or admit to smoking it. The story opens with the case of Penelope Harris, a Bronx woman whose 10-year-old son and 8-year-old niece were taken away after a police search of her apartment (based on suspicions of drug dealing) turned up 10 grams of marijuana, which she said belonged to her boyfriend. In New York, possessing less than 25 grams of pot (about nine-tenths of an ounce) is not even a misdemeanor (provided you do not display it "in public view"); it's a citable offense similar to a traffic violation, punishable by a $100 fine. But it was enough for ACS to put Harris' son in foster care for more than a week. Meanwhile, her niece, whom she was raising as a foster child, was taken away for more than a year. ACS closed the investigation with no finding of neglect.

Here is how the Times summarizes the legal basis for these investigations:

State law considers a child neglected if his or her well-being is threatened by a parent who "repeatedly misuses"a drug. But the law does not distinguish marijuana from heroin or other drugs. The law says that if parents have "substantial impairment of judgment," then there is a presumption of neglect, but it does not refer to quantities of drugs.

"Drug use itself is not child abuse or neglect," says ACS spokesman Michael Fagan, "but it can put children in danger of neglect or abuse." The same could be said of drinking, but ACS presumably does not investigate parents simply because they have alcohol in the house. ACS claims that in most cases involving pot-smoking parents, there is additional evidence of neglect or abuse. Defense attorneys say ACS often tacks on trumped-up neglect claims to bolster cases that are mainly about marijuana consumption, and they report "more than a dozen cases on their dockets involving parents who had never faced neglect allegations and whose children were placed in foster care because of marijuana allegations."

Survey data indicate that 12 percent of New Yorkers smoke pot at least once a year. That's 730,000 people, a substantial fraction of whom are parents. (About 27 percent of New York City households include minors.) Yet ACS is not exactly casting a dragnet for hundreds of thousands of possibly/presumptively unfit parents. "Over all," the Times reports, "the rate of marijuana use among whites is twice as high as among blacks and Hispanics in the city…but defense lawyers said these cases were rarely if ever filed against white parents." Even for parents who retain custody of their children, the investigation is stressful and humiliating, and a finding of neglect means they may not take jobs that involve working around children.

ACLU attorney Sara Rose reports that Lawrence County, Pennsylvania—notorious for snatching babies from their mothers based on positive opiate test results that seem to have been triggered by poppy seeds—has a policy similar to New York's regarding parents who consume marijuana. As Time health writer (and Reason contributor) Maia Szalavitz notes, the trauma of separating children from their parents is bound to cause far more damage than allowing them to be raised by people who smoke pot from time to time. This sort of mindless intervention makes a mockery of the "best interest of the child" standard that is supposed to govern the work of agencies like ACS.

[Thanks to Ethan Nadelmann for the tip.]