In one Alabama county, women who admit to using marijuana during pregnancy often find themselves charged with a felony. Etowah County—in northeastern Alabama—charges more women with "chemical endangerment" than any other county in the state. Until recently, these women were often only granted release from jail on the condition that they enter rehab, despite not being addicted to drugs.
In 2006, Alabama enacted a "chemical endangerment" law designed to punish parents who allow their children near meth labs. However, in the years since the law's passage, Etowah County law enforcement officials have used it to throw women in jail for months over minor drug offenses.
Women who aren't even addicted to drugs have often found themselves trapped in jail, unable to be released unless they go to rehab yet denied entry by drug treatment facilities because of their lack of addiction.
Amanda Bradley was arrested in 2021 after she tested positive for THC after giving birth. Bradley says she had been using CBD oil to cope with chronic pain and had no idea the oil could cause a positive drug test.
"The CBD oil they sold at the store, I didn't know it would make me fail for marijuana," Bradley told AL.com. "It seemed like a natural, safe option. That's why I did it. I didn't know you could get in trouble for stuff you bought from the store."
Bradley couldn't be released unless she entered a rehab facility. But Bradley's CBD oil use didn't count as drug addiction, so addiction treatment facilities wouldn't take her.
"I went back and ended up redoing the assessment and telling them I shoot up and all kinds of stuff to get to rehab and it worked," she said. Ultimately, she spent two months in jail and six months at a drug treatment center.
Another woman, Chelsea Stewart, was arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana charge in 2019. She told AL.com that she stopped smoking after this arrest. However, she still tested positive during a random drug test several weeks later. By that point, Stewart had found out she was pregnant.
Stewart was taken to jail, and after a month, she was released to a halfway house filled with women with histories of heavy addictions to opioids and meth. She told AL.com that she had never used a substance stronger than marijuana, yet she was forced to pay for an unnecessary stay in the halfway house.
"I spent more than $3,000 on that," she said. "I could have been saving for my daughter. I could have been saving for anything, and I wasn't."
In total, 257 pregnant women and new mothers were arrested for chemical endangerment between 2015 and January 2023 in Etowah County. According to Al.com, three-quarters of the people arrested for chemical endangerment (of which 93 percent are women) were too poor to hire an attorney.
However, the situation does seem to be improving slightly. Following reporting last year, Etowah County no longer requires pregnant women to attend—and pay for—rehab in order to get out of jail.
Even without mandated rehab, Etowah County law enforcement are still using the state's chemical endangerment law to unnecessarily punish women for minor drug offenses.
"They are the most zealous prosecutors and sheriff's department we have encountered anywhere across the country," one attorney told Al.com, "and the data backs that up."