There is no evidence that occasional or even heavy marijuana smoking makes a person an unfit parent. “It’s like alcohol,” says Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, who has studied the effects of marijuana in humans in the laboratory and has testified for the defense in some of these New York City child-neglect cases. “Is there any evidence that simply drinking alcohol impairs parenting?” (Full disclosure: Hart and I are currently collaborating on a book.)
“Certainly, if someone is intoxicated, you don’t want them driving, but even alcoholics can parent,” he says. “You must first demonstrate that the child is in danger.”
The vast majority of alcohol drinkers — like the vast majority of marijuana smokers — are recreational users whose habits do not interfere with their work, relationships or parenting.
Moreover, many of these child-neglect cases arise in the context of policing strategies that generate enormous numbers of “stop and frisk” encounters, mainly between blacks and Hispanics and the police. These often result in marijuana arrests, even for small amounts that are not supposed to trigger criminal cases. That’s because, while possession of small amounts of marijuana isn’t a criminal offense, “publicly displaying” marijuana is.
During stop and frisks, when police ask suspects to empty their pockets, the marijuana becomes visible. That allows for arrest for “public display” — and essentially makes the law that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana in New York more theoretical than applied, at least in arrests outside the home.
Some 350,000 such arrests have occurred in New York City since 2002, and in 90% of cases, those arrested were black or Hispanic. Overall, whites are twice as likely as blacks in the city to be marijuana smokers, but whites are hardly ever arrested or charged.
Citing these figures, several city council members called on state legislators this week to change the “public display” law to correct the racial disparity. They also noted that these arrests cost $75 million annually — hardly chump change in a fiscally strapped economy.
The skewed law enforcement practice means, of course, that parents who are most at risk of custody loss due to marijuana arrests are virtually all black and Hispanic.