According to Hart, the problem isn’t just on the streets. Black and Latina women are also at greater risk for marijuana-related child welfare investigations when they seek medical care in hospitals, and doctors surreptitiously test them for drugs. A positive test for marijuana can lead to experiences like that of Harris — even when women are never charged with a crime. Mere admission of past marijuana use to a doctor can sometimes result in a call to child services.
Patients’ drug histories may be kept confidential in drug rehabs, but if a hospital chooses to test for drugs, then determines that a positive test result or admission of past use is evidence of potential child abuse, health-care workers are required to report their suspicions to child welfare authorities.
The problem is that there is no evidence to tie marijuana use automatically to neglectful parenting. Current use also has no bearing on whether a person is addicted or has other drug problems. A positive urine test doesn’t even mean someone is high.
“The real issue is that courts don’t realize that THC-positive urine toxicology tells them nothing about the person’s functioning or intoxication,” says Hart. “There’s an underlying assumption that if someone has a positive marijuana toxicology, you know that they’re intoxicated, when in fact that’s false. THC stays in the system for up to three weeks in many cases.”
White women rarely experience this kind of medical surveillance when they visit hospitals, once again creating a racially divided system that puts black and Hispanic women at higher risk for intrusive child welfare investigations and possible loss of custody.
Twelve percent of New Yorkers over 12 admit to having smoked marijuana at least once in the last year. Most of them are white. If we really believe that parents who use marijuana are such a threat to their children that they should be investigated for neglect, shouldn’t we focus on the parents who are most likely to use the drug?
The fact that these marijuana-related investigations occur almost exclusively among minorities suggests that marijuana isn’t really the problem, it’s racism.
MORE: Top 10 Unhealthy Side Effects of the War on Drugs
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.