Cold as ICE: Separating Families over Medical Cannabis

By Suzannah Weiss on July 8, 2018

Thanks to a recent Trump administration policy, families have been torn apart while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. And though Trump recently ended the policy of separating children from their parents when they’re detained, parents continue losing their children for another reason: the drug war. Parents have been arrested, threatened and reported to child services for trying to treat their kids’ health conditions with cannabidiol (CBD) or cannabis.

Cannabis-derived CBD has been shown to reduce seizures in children with epilepsy, particularly a drug-resistant form called Dravet syndrome, leading parents to pursue this remedy when other treatment methods have failed. This week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even approved Epidiolex, an epilepsy drug containing CBD, making it the first cannabis-based drug approved by the FDA.

But the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) still classifies CBD as a fully prohibited Schedule I drug despite a recent World Health Organization report finding that it has not led to any public health problems and is not addictive. As a result, many parents have found themselves punished for trying to help their kids.

Last year, the DHS took Oklahoma mom Tammy Searcy’s five kids after she treated her epileptic daughter with CBD, even though it led her condition to drastically improve. The Department of Human Services (DHS) denies taking the kids for that reason, but there are many cases like hers. Another mom in Idaho lost custody of her kids in 2016 after being charged with a misdemeanor count of injury to a child because she gave her daughter—who was having seizures and hallucinations—a smoothie containing cannabis butter.Two parents in Georgia were arrested earlier this year for treating their son’s seizures with cannabis and ultimately lost custody of him. A couple in Indiana says the state threatened to take their daughter away when they gave her CBD oil for her seizures instead of her prescribed medication.

Social worker Allison Ray Benavides told The Daily Beast that child protective services seem to be going after vulnerable families. “In San Diego, there’s a group of us moms who have kids with seizure disorders and use CBD oil.There’s only one mom in our group who has had a problem with [Child Protective Services]: the single mom whose husband is in prison,” she said. “If they were white and living in Newport Beach, this never would have happened.”

Parents are also being separated from their kids over their own cannabis use. In 2011, a mother named Penelope Harris was arrested in the Bronx after police found 10 grams of cannabis in her apartment. While this wasn’t enough to charge her with a crime, the police did report her to a child welfare hotline, leading caseworkers to take away her kids.

“I felt like less of a parent, like I had failed my children,” she told The New York Times. One dad similarly lost custody of his one-year-old over a $5 bag of weed. Brooklyn Family Defense Project director Lauren Shapiro, who defends parents in these situations, told The Times that more than 90 percent of such drug-use cases involved cannabis.  

It doesn’t seem to make a difference even if the parents' cannabis use is completely legal. Nathaniel Rudd, who began petitioning for custody of his son when he learned his mom couldn’t care for him, was denied custody for using medical cannabis for pain relief, despite it being legal where he lives in California.

“The problem is that there is no real way for parents to protect themselves,” Rachel Beth Wissner, an outreach associate with Massachusetts-based Family Law & Cannabis Alliance, told The Cannifornian. “They can act completely legally under the law—even be more careful, diligent and safe than the laws require—and they can still find themselves at the mercy of child protection services and the courts solely for marijuana.”

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