Paranoia is widespread for cannabis users with children. This fear is logical, and has nothing to do with the drug’s effects per se. Horror stories about hospitals, neighbors or ex-spouses diming out a parent who uses pot to child-protective services—who then remove the child from parental custody—are widespread and common. Many pregnant women have also been hesitant to disclose their cannabis use with healthcare providers, for fear of being referred to child-protective services or law enforcement—an attitude prevalent enough to be documented in a major study last year.
It turns out there’s a simple and popular policy intervention that eliminates this risk and underlying anxiety, while also improving child welfare outcomes: legalizing recreational marijuana.
As research from two University of Mississippi economists published earlier this year found, recreational marijuana legalization reduces all foster-care referrals by at least 10%, with greater reductions in years after. The findings suggest “legalization may have important consequences for child welfare” beyond the decriminalization of their parents’ behavior, the authors wrote—and that the impact of legalization on society is profound.
The Truth of “Consequences”
Legalization’s effects on the foster-care system are twofold, the study found. Yes, parents who use cannabis are less likely to lose custody for their children because they’re incarcerated. And while these findings also support the “substitution” contention—that cannabis legalization discourages the use of other more deleterious substances like alcohol—the researchers also found fewer referrals for seemingly unrelated causes, including physical abuse and neglect. This is evidence to suggest that legalization somehow makes parents better parents.
“You have to remember that we’re not really writing about the consequences of marijuana use, so much as the consequences on the users’ children,” said John Gardner, an economics professor at Ole Miss, who co-authored the paper with doctoral candidate Bright Osei. “It looks like there’s something going on when parents can use marijuana recreationally: They end up engaging in less physical abuse, less neglectful parenting, stuff like that.”
Add in the knowledge that the act of entering foster care itself can be traumatic to a child (and their family), and what you’re left with is a simple suggestion: Marijuana legalization is good for children and their families.
“What we see is, it looks like [legalization] is beneficial to kids,” Gardner added in an interview. “Having this option available for adults has spill-over benefits for children.”
And it goes further. Foster care is expensive. A 10% reduction nationwide in foster-care placements would save $675 million a year, the researchers noted. Cost savings would be good for everyone else, too. So this study suggests that on top of the cost savings associated with law enforcement and the courts, cannabis legalization saves the government even more money, all while boosting early-childhood outcomes.
More Proof Youth Are Alright
The researchers looked at foster-care admissions data from ten states over the past two decades as well as Census data for demographic information. They found that foster-care entries declined in the months immediately preceding a law taking effect—suggesting that law enforcement and other agencies alter policies in anticipation, but they also found that the decreases continued after legalization, in some cases in excess of ten percent.
The researchers cautioned that it’s not entirely clear whether the decline is because parents are using safer drugs or simply able to better function, but anecdotal evidence suggests it could be both.
But since foster-care placements went down to such a degree, at the least, the findings are yet another sign that anti-legalization campaigners’ frequent claims that legalization is harmful to youth are specious at best. Repeated insistence that legalization would lead to a spike in youth cannabis use have never been borne out by data. And these most recent findings suggest that children whose lives are not directly touched by cannabis may also be improved.
Real-life anecdotes support the study’s findings and go one further: eroding the pervasive stigma surrounding responsible cannabis use and responsible parenting.
“The Stigma Is Completely Wrong”
Sean Maedler is the father of Rylie Maedler, a Delaware teen who started taking cannabis oil medicinally to treat seizures and tumors at the age of 7. Rylie’s ordeal and her activism helped change state law to allow children medical cannabis access. But cannabis also improved her dad’s life.
A former alcohol abuser, Sean was discouraged from using cannabis by Alcoholic Anonymous, but wasn’t enjoying the side effects of the medications he was prescribed. And, lo: Cannabis reduced his anxiety and tension. Sean was a better person and parent. By this logic, cannabis improved her husband’s parenting, according to Janie Maedler, Rylie’s mother and the managing partner of the Rylie’s Smile Foundation, which advocates for similar changes in law in other states across the country.
“After he stopped drinking, he was angry,” Janie said. “When we finally got him to try it, it was like an a-ha moment—he was a totally different person.”
Janie is also familiar with the risk of foster care in any situation. A nephew recently left his parents to live with a grandmother. But even in the care of a loving relative, her nephew became quiet and withdrawn. How much worse off would he be in the care of complete strangers, no matter how well intentioned?
The study also gives the lie to some long-standing behavioral mores that still affect parents and parenting. Culture is replete with positive references to alcohol as a parental tonic. While alcohol companies market drinky white wine as “Mommy juice,” parents who use cannabis have to deal with anonymous CPS reports filed by teachers, neighbors or strangers who simply don’t like the plant’s smell. If cannabis is used responsibly, and the parental duties are met, what is the problem?
“There is intense stigma” against parental cannabis use, Janie Maedler notes. “And the stigma is completely wrong.”
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